by Vanessa Claire Stewart
directed by Jaime Robledo
Sacred Fools Theatre
extended through July 15
Vanessa Claire Stewart's world premiere homage to silent screen legend Buster Keaton Stoneface succeeds on many levels, first and foremost of which is its brilliant recreation of silent movies by cast and crew. The execution of gags and physical comedy is tough to pull off; here its click by click precision timing almost defies description. Of fascinating interest is a contraption that opens Act II. Pushing a few pulleys back and forth has never produced quite the picnic that this one does with Keaton (French Stewart) and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle (Scott Legett) controlling the moves in a hit or miss game that symbolizes their entire careers. Now onstage at the Sacred Fools Theatre, Stoneface is a beautifully written and performed look at old Hollywood and at a few geniuses who dared to buck the system in order to make a difference.
Director Jaime Robledo and choreographers Andrew Amani for stunts & fights and Natasha Norman for dance make every precious moment count as they move their actors about a bare stage that serves as a movie set. The characters sometimes move in slow motion or at times as if in fast forward position. This is a silent movie scene, after which there may be a 'talking' scene, and all the while Buster Keaton's real life story - personal life incidents as well as career highlights from 20s vaudeville to 1952, working with Charlie Chaplin (Guy Picot) in Limelight - unfolds, with film and reality so neatly blended that it is difficult to tell where "the movie ends and life begins". The story moves forward consecutively except in one place where the action flashes back from 1934 to 1927. Keaton was reduced to shooting a B film in Mexico in '34 and during a poker game in '27 much of the unpredictability and lack of stability of the studio system was laid out for him during a poker game. You win some, you lose some. For a genius like Keaton who hated Louis B. Mayer's (Pat Towne) restrictions and wanted to make his own featureThe General at all costs, there was a lot of suffering that ruined his marriage to Natalie Talmadge (Tegan Ashton Cohan) and led to his frequent bouts with alcoholism. The play depicts at least two of his stays in a clinic, and one particularly unforgettable scene plays out in which the old failing Keaton allows himself to be dominated and destroyed by his younger, former successful self (Joe Fria). (pictured below) After falling, comes another more fruitful rise for Keaton in 1937 when he falls passionately in love with Eleanor Norris (Rena Strober) and is happily reborn as both performer and human being.
This is one of the best roles ever for French Stewart who relishes every second onstage. Keaton's physical dexterity and stoneface delivery - taught to him from childhood while performing in home movies - dominate Stewart's portrayal. He makes Keaton's deep sadness due to his checkered career and loss of marriage and fatherhood drive the performance forward in a completely natural way. I never caught him acting. Remarkable work! Also wonderful are Leggett as Roscoe, Cohan as Talmadge and Fria as young Keaton/son James, and all others in this cohesive ensemble.
Ben Rock and Anthony Backman are to be lauded for their video/projection design, which so enhances the piece especially at the beginning and end. Vanessa Claire Stewart's outstanding script, Robledo's meticulous direction and French Stewart's consummate performance make Stoneface a must see. This Hollywood story is doubly worthy of your attention - I know I said it before but I must repeat it - because of the production's entire execution, which pulls you in to experience and feel the making of silent pictures.