Actor John Jezior has become well known to Philadelphia area audiences through his work on Shakespeare productions; he has performed in nearly half of the Bard’s canon. “Jez” has been expanding his ambit recently, with a comic turn in SmokeyScout Productions’ 2010 Philly Fringe show Boat Hole and a role in the premiere of Love and Communication at the Passage Theater Company in Trenton, NJ.
He is currently starring in Luna Theater’s Philadelphia premiere of Sarah Kane’s brutal first play Blasted (tickets and info here), playing UpStairs at the Adrienne Theater (2030 Sansom Street). Extended to March 5, Blasted is the best-reviewed play in Luna’s nine-year history (see our fearless reporter’s review here), and has a strong claim to be the best-reviewed play on the Philadelphia stage this 2010/11 season. A harrowing tale of violence and social disruption, Blasted presents unique challenges to its actors. Philadelphia Performing Arts Authority talked to Jez about this challenging role.
PPAA: Although it is thoroughly engaging, Blasted is an incredibly difficult play to watch. What challenges does it present as an actor?
JOHN JEZIOR: Physically and mentally it’s exhausting, which is to be expected, but it was the emotional side that had the biggest affect on me. From the viewpoint of an actor’s craft, the material won’t tolerate pretense. Anything false, any crutches, shortcuts or “tricks” that we actors rely on—sometimes without even knowing it—just fall flat when put under the harsh light of the play. We realized right away that it could easily go the way of angst-ridden melodrama if we indulged ourselves and didn’t push past into a rawer, simpler honesty. Greg [Campbell, director, and Luna’s producing artistic director] has a very good eye for spotting false moments, and calling “shenanigans.” The script forces you to excise any and all lies; this includes lies I tell myself about the world, or the nature of people, but more importantly, it forces me to examine lies I tell myself about my own limitations, both as an actor and as a man.
Sarah Kane maintains that we’re all only one or two tragedies away from barbarism, one or two bad choices away from being a monster—from doing not only the wrong thing, but doing it in the worst way possible. For me to play the role, I had to find that in myself, to realize that I am that monster-in-waiting, and there, but for the grace of God, go I. That’s was an amazingly humbling paradigm shift for me.
PPAA: How did you come to Sarah Kane’s work? Did you know her before you were given this script?
JJ: I hadn’t heard of her until this audition opportunity. I don’t like admitting that. For better or worse, I’ve always focused on the “here-and-now” in my career—if I’m doing a lot of Shakespeare, I’m reading a lot of Shakespeare, or I’d bone up on Irish plays once I knew the Festival was happening—that kind of thing. I always feel like I’ll get to the “other stuff” eventually. That lack of sophistication consistently bites me on the ass! (Laughs)
PPAA: There have been walk-outs of some performances. Was that expected? How do you prepare for that and how does it affect you onstage?
JJ: Actually, there have been far fewer than I expected. We lost a few folks during previews, then one on opening night—but he later made a point of saying he loved the show, he just thought he was going to pass out. Since then, though, not a one. I’m inordinately proud of that fact: proud for us as a company, and proud of the Philadelphia audiences. I’d like to think it means we’re serving the play, which is about so much more than the cruelty that fuels it.
I didn’t really prepare for it, and I try not to let it affect me at all onstage. No matter how in-the-moment I ever get, there’s always that self-aware part of my brain, that judgmental little guy that watches what I’m doing, hears the audience’s responses, and comments negatively on it in my head. But I learned to ignore him long ago.
PPAA: Haley [McCormick] is fairly young actor, but she did an incredible job in a very mature role as Cate. Did you have any trepidation about working with such a young person in such an adult role? I think I’d feel almost protective of her.
JJ: No, any potential trepidation disappeared after I first met her, sandblasted away by her rock-solid professionalism. She attacked the material with a fearlessness and a sense of craft that belied her age. It shocked me. Funny that you mention being protective . . . I kept trying to be the protective uncle, but it was useless; she was much better at handling the demands of the process than I was. Actually, I’m insanely jealous of her, and wish I had half her chops when I was 24.
PPAA: Did you see your other costar, Jerry [Rudasill], as Aaron in the Plays and Players production of Titus Andronicus (Sept. 2010)? Have you made any comments to him about his string of sociopathic cannibalistic roles?
JJ: (Laughs) I missed Titus, which I’m still kicking myself over, as it had a smorgasbord of Philly talent who are also friends of mine . . . but the idea of Jerry being typecast in crazy cannibal shows was a running backstage gag throughout the entire rehearsal process. It’s even funnier considering he’s easily the most sensitive of the three of us, which nobody would believe after seeing his wrenching performance in Blasted. [That’s a] testament to his talent.
PPAA: The works of Shakespeare are full of onstage violence. You’ve also acted in a lot of Shakespeare over the years. What do you see as some similarities and differences between the Bard’s violence and that of Kane?
JJ: At best, they’re more similar than different: an eruption of physicality borne from intention, a choice the character feels they’re driven to, inexorably, by the situation. Violence in Shakespeare works best when it surprises the audience, when it reminds them that they’re not watching an outdated museum piece about historical figures but a living, vital moment about people who are just like them. I can remember two moments in particular from past productions I’ve worked on that achieved that brilliantly: A Romeo-Tybalt murder staged by Rick Sordelet, and a Cornwall-Gloucester eye-gouging done by Ian Rose. Both were visceral and wet, with sickening, sudden moments of brutal reality that evoked primal responses from the audience. It forced them to be a part of the action, to reflexively empathize. In that regard, Sarah Kane’s violence is very Shakespearean—it reminds a desensitized audience that violence actually hurts.
PPAA: I lived in England, in Leeds actually [where Blasted is set], during the mid-1990s, and I remember the horrified British tabloid reaction to Blasted. In the years since, and perhaps especially since her suicide, Kane’s reputation has been reconsidered. What do you think will be the legacy of this play and her other work?
JJ: That kind of prediction’s way above my head—that lack of sophistication I mentioned, remember? (Laughs) But I can only hope that audiences continue to recognize it for being so much more than the sum of its brutal, bloody parts. Yes, it forces us to acknowledge what’s beneath the veneer of civilization, and accept the idea that we’re all brutish and cruel, to some degree or other. But it also acknowledges hope, kindness and empathy. Does one redeem the other? Sarah Kane didn’t presume to know the answer; her mission was to hold up the mirror. As an actor, I have to serve her play, and can’t afford the luxury of presuming either. There’s no easy answer. Like life.
PPAA: What can we expect to see you in next?
JJ: I don’t have a full gig lined up yet, but I will be doing one of the popular readings at Plays and Players, Super Heroes Who Are Super, on March 12 [Save the Day Productions]. I’m also doing a Bat Mitzvah. Seriously.
Blasted runs through March 5, 2011, UpStairs at the Adrienne Theater, 2030 Sansom Street. Tickets $25-$32 at www.lunatheater.org.
Published by the Philadelphia Performing Arts Authority.