“What lies ahead?” asking the oracle in ’20s New York: a review of The Salon of the Talking Turk

Louise Lambert, Mark Meer, Braydon Downler-Coltman in The Salon of the Talking Turk, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Will I be ever again be as happy as I was on the happiest day of my life so far?

It’s a question that haunts all of us, on tiptoes at the hidden intersection between what’s gone on and what might be. And it haunts the odd and delightful 2005 comedy that Teatro La Quindicina has revived to open their 35th anniversary season.    

Odd? The star attraction of Stewart Lemoine’s The Salon of the Talking Turk, is a marvellous mechanical: a clockwork Turk from centuries past with cogs and levers, buttons (for beginners) and hidden switches (for the cognoscenti).

The marvellous Mark Meer returns with uncanny physical/verbal precision and magnetism to the role of the exotic, mysteriously insightful life-sized robot. He is heir to the magical mechanicals who were the rage in 18th century European salons and populate the dark fantasies of E.T.A. Hoffman in the 19th.    

It came back to me, Thursday night, how intricate and strange this comedy really is. Like its mechanical centrepiece, it works in whirring cogs and gears: a thought, a spin back to the moment when the thought originated, a spin forward from there to another moment in time, then back.

Its unhinged whirrr-bang pinball logic is unhinged from the usual narrative connectives. Which leaves its  characters in 20s New York springing buoyantly from thought to thought: “O! Say!” And leaves Lemoine’s script flinging off breezy witticisms at a hilarious rate.

“I have a letter here, and apparently I’m your brother,” says Wally (Braydon Dowler-Coltman) to Long Island socialite Cornelia (Louise Lambert). He’s just arrived from an orphanage. And since “an obscure childhood gives you a leg up,” as he notes cheerily,  he will graduate soon thereafter from both Yale and Harvard, simultaneously.

His new-found sister is only momentarily startled. “Well look at you. Tall. That’s a new development.”

One day Cornelia, who’s been married to “a renowned steeplechase champion,” suddenly realizes, “O! say! I’m over my divorce!” Equally suddenly, her best friend Dominica (Shannon Blanchet), a Manhattan flapper of riotously narcissistic impulses, takes it into her head to become a bargain hunter, and impulsively buys an automaton, in pieces in a crate, at an antique fair out of town.

As soon as the Talking Turk is assembled and up and running, there’s the question of what questions to ask him. He seems to understand and empathize, and even be amused. “Do you do that? Enjoy things?” wonders Cornelia. “I can’t really, but I’m told it’s not readily apparent” She nods. “Perfect. That’s all I’d expect of any guest.”

The characters are blithe and giddy sophisticates; I was going to call them ‘innocent sophisticates’ but I have a feeling that might be an oxymoron. Anyhow, Lemoine’s actors are unerring at flinging off cleverness lightly, even in extended deliveries, as if it’s just occurred to them. It’s the secret of their charm. “Faith: that’s for busy people,” Dominica notes with a shrug, in passing. “Terrible writers have much to tell us,” declares Wally casually, addressing himself to literary thoughts before moving on to other matters. 

As the cordial, slightly addled divorcée, Lambert turns in a bright, beaming performance. She’s an amusing contrast to the tart and worldly grimace of her friend Dominica, the “serial fiancée” whose brand of jadedness gives her predations a larky air. Blanchet is a riot.

The bouncy collegiate precocity that Teatro newcomer Dowler-Coltman brings to Wally is tempered with earnest good humour. Wally isn’t exactly breezy; instead there droll skepticism in a comic performance full of tiny double-takes: Wally can never quite believe he’s just heard what he’s just heard. 

Well, really, how often does Charles X of the Bourbons come up in conversation?

Chantel Fortin’s set, with its art deco touches (and a vintage booth the Turk calls home), captures the artifice of the surroundings, along with Matt Currie’s lighting. This production is, I think, the first time I’ve ever found the arrival of cushions onstage amusing: the Ottoman Craze one prop at a time.

The unknown of the future — its baggage of memory, its scary randomness, its sense of possibility — is something the fortune-telling machine seems to have thoughts about (ah, depending on how you word your question, of course). In one way or another, all the characters come up against it. And the whimsy of the play’s light textures and extravagantly literate verbal flourishes makes those moments all the more shivery and striking.

Spoilers are involved, so I can’t tell you exactly what happens. But the mysteries of the heart are where both the happy and the sad are to be discovered. 

This curious comedy, from a company that has always set about expanding comic boundaries, gets there in the most unexpected way. “O, you can laugh,” says Wally when he discovers new skills in the Talking Turk. “Yes, yes, in spite of everything…” says the witty automaton. He’s joking but he’s not kidding.

REVIEW

The Salon of the Talking Turk

Theatre: Teatro La Quindicina

Written and directed by: Stewart Lemoine

Starring: Mark Meer, Louise Lambert, Braydon Dowler-Coltman, Shannon Blanchet

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through June 10

Tickets: 780-433-3399, teatroq.com

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