July 7, 2006
Jericho to provide marquee mayhem
By THANE BURNETT - Toronto Sun
When Chris Irvine takes the stage at Toronto's Centre for the Arts later this month, it's best not to tell him to "break a leg."
It could be yours.
The budding thespian Irvine is better known by another name and usually on another, rougher stage.
Chris Jericho, the 234-pound, 6-foot Canadian acted out for more than a decade in international wrestling arenas.
A headliner in the carefully scripted entertainment-sport, the Winnipeg rassler -- once a Winnipeg Sun cub sports reporter who later cut his teeth in Stu Hart's famous pro-wrestling camp in Calgary in 1990 -- was the first undisputed world heavyweight champ and the last ever WCW World Champ.
He also once fought a contender where the loser had to wear a dress. Chris won.
Now Chris Jericho -- also known during various plots as Corazon de Leon, Lion Do, The Lion Tamer and Lionheart -- is on the marquee of the North York Theatre.
He longs for one more title -- that of a legitimate stage actor.
From July 20 to 22, he'll play the lead in Norm Foster's Opening Night, at the Yonge St. theatre.
It's the story of a Broadway opening gone wrong -- with the former wrestler as a middle-aged varnish salesman who's dragged to the production when he'd rather be watching the World Series.
Last night, he returned for a night of improv at the famous Groundlings Theatre in L.A. The venue gave birth to the likes of Will Ferrell and Lisa Kudrow.
The retired wrestler has found a second home in the coveted Thursday night spot at Groundlings, where improv newbies can work for years to find themselves a spot. His appearances were born from a stint on Mad TV.
"I look around and think, 'Wow, there's the guy from (the movie) Best in Show or someone else from Friends," Chris tells me from his L.A. home.
As we talk by phone, the onetime bad guy of the ring is walking around doing housework.
I know what you're thinking. So does he. That a wrestler is a tough sell as a serious stage actor.
"The thing that's cool, is it's not that far off (from) wrestling," he says. "(In the ring) we're working without a net, it's live and you're committed to the character.
"In the ring, people don't pay to see Chris Irvine, they want to see Chris Jericho, who's bigger than life. In the theatre, they don't want to see Chris Jericho fumbling about on stage. They want to see a character."
His character in the Toronto play is a bombastic know-it-all buffoon.
"Are there going to be similarities with my wrestling (persona)? Sure. The same as there are similarities in every character De Niro plays."
The son of retired NHLer Ted Irvine, who played for the L.A. Kings, Bruins, N.Y. Rangers and St. Louis Blues in the '60s and '70s, Chris says he never had the talent for pro hockey. But he realized early on he could toss his body around -- along with others -- while entertaining a crowd.
"I'm no stranger to improv ... we did it for 20 minutes after each good (wrestling) show," says Chris, who's expecting his second child to be born later this year.
Millions of people tune in, and buy in, to catch his antics in the ring. He knows they all won't be lining up to watch him try to conquer the theatre.
"Just because it has Chris Jericho in it doesn't mean people will watch (wrestling) then truck down to the theatre," he says. "It's a benefit but also a detriment."
Sometimes an ex-wrestler just doesn't get any respect.
Despite the name recognition -- and how his parents loved his performance as the menacing Fagin in a high school production of Oliver -- this is the first real Toronto ink given his professional stage theatrical debut.
Serious local theatre critics aren't pinning him down for interviews in wide-eyed anticipation of Opening Night.
Still, he's not afraid of what others may think.
"Last year I was a wrestler who wanted to act. Now, I'm an actor who once was a wrestler."
But would the same fans who paid money to see him perform his signature "lionsault" -- a springboard leap -- or the "breakdown" -- described as a "full nelson face-buster" -- buy a theatre ticket to see him play Jack Tisdale, a varnish salesman?
"I expect they'll be a few wrestling fans, a few Fozzy fans (his rock band) and a few improv fans, but mostly it'll be people who like the theatre," he says.
Sometimes, he says, as he finishes the cleaning and the call, "It's good when people have low expectations."
That way it's easier to sneak up and knock them out cold with a surprise theatre seat.
Opening Night is scheduled to run July 20 - 22, 2006 at the Toronto Centre for the Arts Studio Theatre with showtimes at 8:00 p.m. Tickets went on sale in March and are available by contacting Ticketmaster at www.ticketmaster.ca or 416-870-8000, or in person at all local Ticketmaster outlets and the Toronto Centre box office.