BWW Reviews: French Stewart in STONEFACE: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton
Sacred Fools’ production of STONEFACE: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton has raced to the top of my list of most recommended shows to see in Los Angeles this summer. From the moment you enter the theater you can feel the undercurrent of anticipation. A film screen sits center stage showing black & white Keaton film clips, effectively re-setting the clock and erasing today’s advanced world of high-tech media. Surrounding it is a detail-rich vintage backstage studio set (the work of Joel Daavid), lit by Jeremy Pivnick (who has outdone himself) with cascading shadows that fade in and out as the light spills across the exposed rigging, props and familiar studio gear.
A piano sits downstage in a small pool of light, awaiting Ryan Johnson, the musical director/pianist who will accompany the play’s action. Live music was so essential to silent films that it was often played on the set during filming to help the actors achieve the right tone of a scene. For STONEFACE, Johnson’s live music adds an expressive layer of authenticity that is among the production’s many fine attributes.
In a brilliant opening scene the characters are introduced as if arriving at the stage door on the street, pausing to wave at the crowd and pose for a photograph before crossing behind the film screen and quite literally stepping into the picture. The moment drew gasps from the audience at director Jaime Robledo’s clever device – three-dimensional live actors becoming B&W silent film footage returning to live-and-in-color actors again…and that’s only the beginning of the imaginative effects you’ll see in this production.
Robledo, stunt/fight choreographer Andrew Amani, and dance choreographer Natasha Norman have crafted sequences that require killer precision. Hilarious chase scenes through free-standing doorways, trampoline runs at breakneck speed, and all manner of physical comedy play out with cunning style and choreographed perfection. One particular chase scene between Keaton (French Stewart in the performance of a lifetime) and his younger self (a sly and dynamic Joe Fria) turns into an ironic soft shoe routine with canes, and later, a boxing match between the pair is classic slapstick.
Events from his personal and professional life are presented like moving snapshots interspersed with fantasy recreations of some of his most well-known film sequences. We see him escape from a straightjacket while institutionalized, confront his old boss Louis B. Mayer (Pat Towne), and marry and divorce his first wife Natalie Talmadge (Tegan Ashton Cohen)…but not before witnessing a hilarious ‘spite marriage’ sequence with the couple tearing each other’s clothes off to a dissonantly altered version of “Ain’t She Sweet.”
He defies a wind storm reminiscent of Steamboat Bill, Jr., and turns down a partnership in United Artists when Charlie Chaplin (Guy Picot) tries to convince him it’s the only way to control their futures. And he plays poker with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (Scott Leggett) who poignantly reminds him that, “One day we fill up a screen bigger than anyone, and then we’re gone.” Best of all he and Fatty recreate their famous "one-room house" scene from The Scarecrow. In it, the two comedians ingeniously pass objects back and forth across a table using a complicated system of pulleys, sandbags and exact movements – swinging salt to each other overhead, landing a tomato with a plop on Arbuckle’s fork, and flying a bottle of whiskey out of a closed cabinet and back again, delivering a juicy payoff for what had to be hours of practice to perfect the timing.
Comedy is all about the timing, “set-up, 2 clicks – joke, 3 clicks,” says Keaton, but the arrival of the talkies meant the clicks were taken away, and that played havoc with his ability to time his jokes. He was not a happy man.
While STONEFACE does take the audience through the tragic ups and downs of Buster Keaton’s career, at its core its story reflects a deeper truth about the power of love to heal. In many ways it is a love letter - to the brilliance of his films like The General, to the redemptive love between Keaton and his third wife Eleanor Norris (Rena Strober), and even to the legion of fans that celebrate his legacy today.
Playwright Vanessa Claire Stewart (formerly Vanessa Claire Smith) wrote and starred in the award-winning Louis and Keely: Live at the Sahara, which also originated at Sacred Fools before transferring to the Geffen Playhouse several years ago. It was at the Geffen that she first met French Stewart, the man who was to later become her husband and the inspiration for STONEFACE. The two hit it off and when he confided that he had given up his lifelong dream to play Buster Keaton due to his age, Vanessa secretly started researching the comedian and subsequently wrote him a part that may well become his signature role. Best known as Harry on the television series 3rd Rock From The Sun, he plays the older Buster Keaton with such physical dexterity and grace that one wonders he’s never been given an opportunity like this before. His motionless face and deep, sad eyes fit the man so perfectly. In many ways STONEFACE is also a love letter to their own personal and creative collaboration as well.
The cast is an exceptionally talented group of actors. In addition to those mentioned previously, Erin Parks plays Mae Scriven, the nurse Keaton married while in an alcoholic blackout, Conor Duffy does a double turn as Edward Sedgwick and George Jessel, and Jake Broder gives a fascinating portrayal of producer Joseph Schenk.
This is one night at the theater you don't want to miss. STONEFACE: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton has already been extended and will run through August 5th at Sacred Fools Theater Company, 660 N. Heliotrope, Los Angeles, CA 90004. www.sacredfools.org