Theatre

Take Me or Leave Me

If the rotters Jim Mezon likes to play are irredeemably loathsome, so much the better

John Bemrose May 28 2001
Theatre

Take Me or Leave Me

If the rotters Jim Mezon likes to play are irredeemably loathsome, so much the better

John Bemrose May 28 2001

Take Me or Leave Me

Theatre

If the rotters Jim Mezon likes to play are irredeemably loathsome, so much the better

JOHN BEMROSE

"Ilike the parts where you can just walk out and really stick it to an audience—the parts where you don’t have to care if you’re a sympathetic character or not. If a role has something mean and dark and ugly about it, so much the better. Because I just happen to believe that there are aspects of all of us that are like that.” Jim Mezon smiles pleasandy as he says this: there’s no hint of the bullies, cheats, criminals and hard-hearted businessmen and aristocrats he’s played to great acclaim for 18 years at Ontario’s Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, a twohour drive south of Toronto. In the Shaw’s new season (opening on May 23 and running until Nov. 25), Mezon’s parts will include the villainous Captain

Hook in J. M. Barrie’s 1904 classic, Peter Pan (to Oct 28).

The melodrama is considerably less sophisticated than Mezon’s usual fare, but he will no doubt bring to it all the force of his ominous stage presence, supported by a voice that sounds as if it could cut sheet metal. And he won’t be pandering to the audience. “I don’t care whether you like me up there or not,” he claims. “If there’s one thing I hate in an actor it’s the craving to be liked.”

Mezon, 49, has been widely touted as a possible replacement for the Shaw’s artistic director, Christopher Newton, who’s retiring at the end of the 2002 season. Mezon qualifies for the job because he’s not only one of the festival’s finest actors but also an accomplished director who has deftly mounted some of George Bernard Shaw’s less well-known plays {Widowers’ Houses, The Philanderer) as well as a much-praised 1996-

1997 version of J. M. Synges The Playboy of the Western World. But this Sunday morning, Mezon is an actor only, pausing for an interview before running off to rehearse the part of Howard in William Inge’s 1953 play Picnic (opening on May 17 and running until Sept. 21). With large, pointed ears pressed close to the sides of his shaved head, and small, expressive brown eyes, Mezon has something of the appearance of an overgrown elf. His affable, eager manner is so completely at odds with his menacing stage persona that the interviewer feels compelled to remark on the difference.

That comment sets Mezon off on a long examination of that most mysterious and elusive thing, the actor’s sense of identity. Most actors are aware of a split between their onand offstage selves. But Mezon seems to have suffered the duality more than most. “An actor validates himself by being someone else on stage,” he points out, “and if you spend your life being someone else and being rewarded for it, then the stage become a very safe and solid world. The trouble is, when you leave that world, you’re completely at sea. When I was younger, I was intensely insecure offstage. I couldn’t talk to anyone, I couldn’t put two thoughts together, I had no confidence at all.”

For Mezon, the realization that performing could help allay his insecurities came very early. A Winnipeg native, he was the middle of three children born to railway worker Stan Mezon and his homemaker wife, Ida. “I was quiet and excruciatingly shy as a boy, but I can remember doing a puppet show in about Grade 4.

When I worked that hand puppet, then this was gone,”

Mezon recalls, covering his face with his hand, as if to hide his troubled, nine-yearold self. “It had transformed itself into that,” he explains, holding his other hand above his head to indicate the puppet, which had become his new face to the world. “That discovery dominated the way I worked for many years, consciously or unconsciously.”

Mezon performed in school productions, experiencing another miraculous uprush of confidence as the Admiral in HMS Pinafore. Later he joined a group of neophyte actors and writers who put on original plays around Winnipeg. By his early 20s he was working as a janitor in the Manitoba Theatre Centre, often slipping away from his duties to watch rehearsals. Then, in 1975, he auditioned successfully for a new theatre school in Vancouver, formed in association with the Vancouver Playhouse. Playing the lead in The Count of Monte Cristo and Edgar in King Lear, he came to the notice of the Playhouses director, Christopher Newton. When Newton was hired to run the Shaw Festival in 1980, he asked Mezon to come with him. Except for a couple of years spent acting elsewhere, and regular off-season work at the country’s regional theatres (last year he triumphed in the Job-like role of Reuben in a Toronto production of Jason Sherman’s Patience), Mezon has been at the Shaw ever since.

Mezon’s power onstage flows from the impression he creates of intense focus. With his drilling tenor voice, there’s something hard and relentless about the way he attacks a role, turning it into a weapon for opening up the darker side of human nature. He’s performed major parts in such Bernard Shaw classics as Major Barbara and Heartbreak House, demonstrating a mastery of the dramatist’s rhetorical flights while grounding them in a solid physicality. In 1989, he was an acclaimed Peer Gynt, the roguish wanderer in Ibsen’s early verse drama. The marathon part demanded the memorization of 25,000 words, a process so frustrating at times that Mezon would sometimes relieve the stress,

MEZON'S POWER ONSTAGE FLOWS FROM HIS INTENSE FOCUS

This spring, the Shaw Festival veteran is balancing yet another heavy, Captain Hook, with the mild Howard of William Inge's Picnic

he once said, by “taking a deck chair out to the backyard and beating the bejesus out of it.”

But despite his success in the spotlight, Mezon in the early and middle parts of his career had trouble negotiating his private life. Explains the actor: “When you’re getting that adrenaline rush onstage, you’re somebody, you’re valid, you can exist on this planet.” Offstage, though,

where insecurity reigns, the natural temptation is to keep the rush going by any means available, even if it means courting self-destruction. Mezon admits he spent too many nights in the bar, got blasted at too many parties, not to mention “acting stupid, acting crazy, being funny.”

That seems a long way from the mellowed-out, incontrol guy he seems to be today. But maturing, he says, hasn’t been easy. “It’s taken years,” he says, “to realize that I’m someone off that stage, and that people care about who I am, and not just about the role I’m playing. And having realized that, I’ve finally started to look after myself as a human being.” Looking after himself means eating right, among other things: he’s embraced a diet that doesn’t mix proteins and carbohydrates, while eschewing all dairy products. He’s lost 40 lb. since last year (he now weighs in at around 180) and claims to have found a new energy. And he no longer heads automatically for the bar after a show, preferring life at home with his companion, actor Catherine McGregor, whom he describes as “the wonderful young woman in my life who keeps me sane.”

Still, life is never quite that simple, and Mezon acknowledges that there’s always a buildup of tension in him that has to be burned off with long daily stints of running, biking or Rollerblading. As for the rumour he might be up for Newton’s post, Mezon says he’s not interested in giving up the performing and directing he loves most: “The Festival is so large now, and the job demands that so much energy be given to things outside acting and directing, that I just can’t see myself going for it. I don’t have the ambition. It’s just not who I am.”

The question of who Jim Mezon is remains as complicated as ever, though. While he gets to strut menacingly as the pirate captain in Peter Pan, he says he’s also looking forward to playing Howard in Picnic. “He’s a balding, gentle kind of man, so different from Hook,” Mezon comments, sounding surprisingly enthusiastic as he hurries off to his rehearsal. It’s hard to imagine the festival’s resident heavy won’t slip at least a little darkness into Howard somewhere. EÛ3