PRESENT LAUGHTER by Noel Coward, directed by Joseph Ziegler, with Juan Chioran, Martha Burns, Joyce Campion, Patricia Fagan, Charmion King, Nancy Palk, Brenda Robins, Neil Foster, Michael Hanrahan, Allan Hawco and Rick Miller. Presented by Soulpepper and Harbourfront Centre at the Premiere Dance Theatre (207 Queen's Quay West). Opens tonight (Thursday, June 28) and runs to July 19, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday and Saturday 2 pm. $25-$43.50. 416-973-4000. Rating: NNNNN
juan chioran calls his neatly trimmed facial hair Errol Clark. Don't you mean Errol Flynn? I ask, peering at his pencil-thin moustache and small beard.
"No, it's a cross between the Errol Flynn look and the Clark Gable look," he smiles, anticipating my question with a wicked smile. "It helps me develop my character from the outside out."
He's referring to the character of Gary Essendine, a 30s-style matinee idol with whom everyone -- male and female -- is infatuated in Noel Coward's light comedy Present Laughter, Soulpepper's season opener.
Gary's always onstage, even in the privacy of his home, where his audience includes his manager, producer, secretary and various servants as well as a constant stream of fawning debutantes, first-time playwrights and would-be mistresses.
"He's essentially a celebrity who's been followed by fans and paparazzi for 20 years. Gary's theatrical milieu is romantic comedy, and his team -- he's like the firm axle of a corporation -- makes sure he stays in that realm. He'd never make it as a Lear or Peer Gynt."
That's where Chioran and Essendine part company. Chioran may become the lightweight stage lover for Soulpepper, but his previous roles demonstrate amazing breadth and depth. Since January, he's had a chance to send up Shakespeare affectionately in Ann-Marie MacDonald's Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), playing both a macho, larger-than-life Othello and Juliet's ribald Nurse. The actor jokes that his Nurse was so over the top that he feared Actors' Equity would demand the return of his union card.
Chioran then did a turnabout in MacDonald's musical Anything That Moves as Tyrone, a sexy gay man who manipulates his straight male friend into the arms of a female scientist.
Classics and musicals were part of his repertoire at Stratford. He played the title role in Man Of La Mancha and, as the ageless count in a musical version of Dracula -- despite the fact that the book was so toothless it couldn't gum its audience into submission -- Chioran radiated charisma, sensuality and menace.
So why isn't he back at Stratford this season?
"I can't sit in one place for too long," he admits. "I have a restless nature that keeps me moving; I don't like to feel complacent. In fact, I fear it."
We're outside at lunchtime, before a rehearsal, and a gardener kicks his lawn mower into high gear a few feet away. To ensure that I can hear him, Chioran suddenly starts to project as though he were in a thousand-seat house.
"Gary has concerns about aging and being alone, but his key flaw is that he can't hurt anyone, can't say goodbye to someone who's taken an interest in him. He's rarely the instigator in a relationship, but there's the burden of celebrity and" -- here Chioran rolls his eyes heavenward -- "god knows it's his burden to endure.
"But seriously," he continues, "he has to see himself as a pawn rather than the dominating force onstage. If you're always the winner, always on top, there are no dynamics in the role.
"He must react to every situation and character as they appear. It's kind of like a steeplechase, where you have to deal with each new obstacle when it arises, not think of the hurdle, water jump or hedge that's 20 feet down the course."
What about the attraction Gary holds for other male characters, like earnest young writer Roland Maule, who's turned on when Gary lambastes him and his script?
"The gay stuff's there," Chioran notes thoughtfully, "but Gary won't pursue it. Still, if the time and place are appropriate, why not? He has a great appetite for life and all it offers.
"Trusting the text, that's the lifelong battle of the actor. And with witty writing like this, you have to be careful neither to squash it through overkill nor" -- here he gestures languidly -- "make a facile statement with a flicked cigarette. The first isn't funny, the second's merely glib."
SELECTED BIOGRAPHY JUAN CHIORAN 2001 Present Laughter; Anything That Moves; Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) 2000 Hamlet; As You Like It 1999 Dracula 1998 Man Of La Mancha 1995 Kiss Of The Spider Woman