Vanessa Claire Stewart knows how to tell a story and in her Buster Keaton biographical drama, “Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton,” she immediately takes us back to a time when everyone read the dialogue at the movies. Stewart wrote the play as a birthday present for her then-boyfriend and now-husband, French Stewart, who stars as the older, alcoholic version of Keaton. Originally opening for a successful run at Sacred Fools, the production is now at the Pasadena Playhouse until 29 June 2014. Movie fans and cinephiles, this is a must-see.
This story isn’t told in a linear fashion so sit up and pay attention. If you’ve done some Netflix homework on Keaton, you’ll understand many of the visual references. The play skips, hops and sometimes leaps into the movies (black and white and grainy), going back in time as Buster Keaton remembers his glory days when he was the most famous man in the movies–director, writer and star. Intertitles are used throughout so bring your glasses and go early.
The Pasadena Playhouse gives you the perfect opportunity for a few selfies before the show and as the audience is being seated, a Buster Keaton film is screened to set the mood.
The cast pretends to be pulled into a movie on the screen and the intertitles let us know where we are in time making some of the scenes play like a silent film. With Keaton, it wasn’t his facial expressions that brought audiences in and his frozen face wasn’t an act as his wife later grumbles. His comedic timing, insane willingness to take a fall, roll, plunge and break a bone once or twice made his performance like a live-action cartoon.
If Keaton’s performances were dangerous, there’s a bit of danger in the performances on stage as well. There’s the falling house stunt and then the rigged meal between Keaton and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.
Fans of French Stewart who know him through “3rd Rock from the Sun” might be disappointed. Stewart’s Keaton is not a buffoon. Theater goers will be delighted to see Stewart reprising a performance that the LA Times called a “revelation” and the LA Weekly gave the original production a Best Production Award. Director Jaime Robledo was also given an LA Weekly Award for Best Director.
I missed the Sacred Fool production, but this production is well worth seeing. Joe Fria brings an exuberance and innocent audacity to his Young Buster. There’s not a hint of fear in his eyes except when he’s being pursued by Tegan Ashton Cohan’s Natalie Talmadge. Cohan’s Talmadge isn’t thoroughly convinced it’s love, and as we soon see, it isn’t. As for adding danger and physical comedy, Cohan and Stewart have one particular scene of bedroom gymnastics that was particularly impressive but don’t think that this isn’t a family friendly production. Stewart’s Keaton is weary, sometimes bitter but always in touch with the best comedic instincts. For those who missed Stewart during the heyday of Justin Tanner and the Cast Theater, you might be surprised.
You’ll have no doubt at the end of the play that the Stewarts love and respect Buster Keaton and this play is both filled with romance in and out of the movies (including backstage as this was written as a birthday present for French Stewart by Vanessa).
This is a chance to step back into history and admire one of the finest comedians on film. If you missed the original production, like I did, don’t miss this bigger and more expansive version. If you saw the original version, then this is a lesson in how to take a show from an intimate venue to a larger house. Running time is 2 hours with a 15-minute intermission.
“Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton” opens on June 3 and continues until June 29 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Avenue, Pasadena. Tuesday through Friday at 8:00 p.m.; Saturday at 4:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.Tickets are $39-$74 . Visit PasadenaPlayhouse.org or call (626) 356-7529 for more information.