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Theatre Review (LA): Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton

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Clowns have always held a fascination for me. Perhaps it is because I grew up in the ’50s when what passed as happy and serene covered a lot of pain and heartache. When sad clowns came into fashion I think it was because times had gotten so rotten that we needed a sad clown to show us not to take ourselves too seriously.

Then there is Buster Keaton, who was neither happy nor sad but was rather a blank upon which we could paint a smile or a frown. Keaton’s clown was daring and smart and made the best of his circumstances. Stoneface, by Vanessa Claire Stewart, gives us Keaton in all his complexity.

Stewart knows how to write a gripping story about a showbiz icon like Keaton. After all, she wrote the remarkable Louis and Keely that had such a huge success around town and is destined to end up in New York and win all sorts of awards. So it will be with Stoneface. She enlisted an actor whom she later married, French Stewart, who had gained fame on television in3rd Rock From The Sun. Stewart was known for his comic skills and, in LA theatrical circles, for some acting in some zany stuff that was often dominated by his performance. He had always wanted to portray Keaton. His performance is brilliant but also revelatory, showing Keaton as a truly gifted physical comedian.

Director Jaime Robledo has come up with an ingenious way to tell Keaton’s story, which, as the title suggests, was a real roller coaster. The creative team doesn’t shy away from Keaton’s negative side; he was bossy, alcoholic, stubborn, and a womanizer.

Keaton was also an original who created something out of nothing, and so it is with this show. The set is bare and minimal but more than serves the purpose, using a couple of doors here, some silent clips there, and a spectacular falling side of a house which fell on Keaton at the end of act one, signifying one of his most memorable pieces of comic business as well as providing a metaphor for his life. In fact, his story is told as if it were a silent movie in which reality would often interject to ruin the gag. The device that says it all is the way characters are able to step behind a screen and emerge in a silent movie on a projected screen.

Besides French Stewart, the rest of the cast is first rate. Scott Leggett makes a believable Fatty Arbuckle, while Guy Picot does a fine job playing Chaplin. Jake Broder, who had partnered with the playwright previously in Louis and Keely, makes a suitably tough movie producer. Joe Fris, who appears throughout the piece, haunting the elder Keaton as he self-destructs and slapping his face to remind him of the gift he has inside, plays Young Buster Keaton. Tegan Ashton Cohan is Keaton’s first wife Natalie Talmadge, who left him because of his drinking. Pat Towne is terrific as Louis B. Mayer, and Rene Strober does a great job with both Eleanor Strober and Norma Talmadge.

I recommend this show to everyone, especially those who have had to claw their way to a career in show business. Stoneface is playing at Sacred Fools Theatre until June 30.

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