Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Hollywood Drama/Human Face: “Stoneface” reintroduces Buster Keaton
The story of early Hollywood offers a host of human dramas. The switch from silent to sound, the development of the monolithic studio system, the pressures on actors and others to live up to their publicity – all of this can be grist for the novelist or playwright’s mill. The trick is to avoid melodrama – to stay real to the people behind the celluloid. When that happens, the window on this fascinating, artistic and insular world can be a revelation.
Take as a uniquely framed, fascinating example “Stoneface,” Vanessa Claire Stewart’s tale of silent star Buster Keaton, which has just expanded from the Sacred Fools Theater Company to the Pasadena Playhouse. The play was written for, and stars, the playwright’s husband French Stewart, who has long been an aficionado of Keaton and his work. As such, his moves echo the man on the screen. It adds to the sense of convoluted but engrossing authenticity which makes the play work.
Keaton, for the uninitiated, was a comic genius of the silent screen comparable to (though vastly different from) Charlie Chaplin. His stunt work was amazing, although it led to the breaking of virtually every bone in his body at one time or another. His ability to weather – on screen – all sorts of physical disaster without changing expression became his hallmark – hence the nickname Stoneface.
Off screen, of course, everything was more complex. Fame swept him away, as did a glamorous but not necessarily heart-based marriage. Keaton’s deep friendship with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle contributed not only to his alcoholism but, as the power of the big studios grew and sound appeared, his disaffection with Hollywood itself. That he would resurrect himself before the end is both surprising and sincerely satisfying.
Stewart is impressive, but this is not a one-man show by any means. Some of his best work plays off of others, especially Joe Fria as Keaton’s younger self, with whom the older man has significant arguments. Scott Leggett gives a touchingly real portrait of Keaton’s close friend Arbuckle, seen mostly in that period after false accusations ruined his career. And this is only the start, as a well-defined ensemble cast creates Keaton’s world.
Worthy of note are Jake Broder as his agent-manager, Tegan Ashton Cohan as his first wife, and Rena Strober in the dual role of Norma Talmadge – that wife’s sister, and as Eleanor, Keaton’s last, more enduring spouse. Pat Towne makes an appropriately bombastic Louis B. Mayer, Conor Duffy and Daisy Eagan fill in the story, and Guy Picot delivers a brief but brilliant turn as Charlie Chaplin. A special nod goes to Ryan Johnson, who accompanies the play live, just as one would watch (or film) a silent movie.
Still, this cast and this script become the magic that is “Stoneface” thanks to director Jaime Robledo’s vision, which seamlessly moves from film to live action to film, taking a story told in vignettes and giving it a sense of wholeness, and occasionally of magic. Joel Daavid’s angular and facile set, with its built-in moments of Keaton sight gags, and Ben Rock and Anthony Backman’s excellent projection design give the story both teeth and the underlying, innate fascination.
According to “Stoneface” (and other reading seems to back this up), Keaton was a whipcrack smart, inventive artist whose vision was obscured by changing times, personal dramas, and power struggles he was ill-equipped to fight. Yet, in the end of the play what one remembers is the underlying rumble of resilience which, if Stewart is to be believed, gave him an ability to bounce back few could equal.
Word of advice: go early, and go in to sit in the theater. You’ll see much, if not all, of one of Keaton’s comic films – a film referenced throughout the play. Also, just for fun, go find a copy of “The General,” the comparatively subtle piece once reviled and now considered his greatest work. In the process, marvel at what he does with his body, all the while keeping that signature stone face.
What: “Stoneface” When: Through June 29, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $34 – $74 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org