I’m wary of plays that deal with historic movie figures or incidents. If they’re overly glib, or play fast-and-loose with the facts, I lose patience pretty fast. I didn’t feel that way about Vanessa Claire Stewart’s Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton, which has been held over at Los Angeles’ Sacred Fools Theatre. If you’re in Los Angeles I encourage you to see it.
Stewart, who wrote and costarred as Keely Smith in the entertaining stage presentation Louis and Keely: Live at the Sahara, was inspired to learn about Buster Keaton after learning that actor French Stewart harbored a strong desire to play the great comedian. (They are now a happily married couple, perhaps inspired by Eleanor and Buster Keaton; at least, I’d like to think so.)
Her play is not literal or linear; it is a series of vignettes, or impressions, of Keaton’s troubled life and see-saw career, in which real life and reel life are seamlessly interwoven. She has taken occasional license with the timing of events, but the end result paints an honest, admiring portrait of the man and the artist.
Jaime Robledo’s staging, at the intimate Sacred Fools Theater, is highly imaginative, enabling his actors to walk in and out of silent-film footage and portray moments in Keaton’s life using ingenious props and set pieces. There are no weak links in the supporting cast, but I was especially taken with Tegan Ashton Cohan, who plays Buster’s first wife, Natalie Talmadge; she has a gift for physical comedy and performs an endearing musical number with Stewart.
As for the star, most of us know French Stewart best for his long run on the hilarious TV series 3rd Rock from the Sun. This role offers him a tour-de-force in which he embodies the stoic Keaton at the height of his career, and at his lowest point, strait-jacketed in a sanitarium. The whole show revolves around him and he is fully up to the task.
I don’t know if it’s an asset or a liability to know Keaton’s story before seeing the play. Someone completely unfamiliar with his life and times might not relate to the show as readily as a fan. I can only report that I was entertained and impressed by Stoneface and wish it a long life.