Monday, June 9, 2014

FRENCH STEWART / STONEFACE at The Pasadena Playhouse

STONEFACE by Vanessa Claire Stewart

After an incredibly successful run of Stoneface at the 99 seat Sacred Fools Theatre in Hollywood, the Pasadena Playhouse kicks it up a notch with expensive production values that the play itself is running to catch up with.    Joel Daavid’s elaborate and functional set fills the stage with a feeling of the stages and locations where Buster Keaton early on worked his cinematic genius.  Preshow clips of Keaton’s films lead into an introduction of the characters.  Meeting the principals utilizes the clever transference of actors on the stage to vintage style movies and back again.  Timing is everything and at the outset the timing works beautifully.

(L-R) French Stewart, Rena Strober, Jake Broder and Tegan Ashton Cohan. Photo by Jim Cox

 The story of French Stewart’s (Keaton) interest in Buster Keaton has a long history.  Luck would have it that he’d meet and marry actress/playwright Vanessa Claire Stewart, whose other work has been produced locally and with whom Stoneface would be created.  Not having seen the previous production, I can only imagine that limited tech in the smaller space put much of the responsibility of the piece on the shoulders of the actors.  Expensively produced on the full stage of the Playhouse may have given the piece too much to deal with.

Director Jaime Robledo’s staging is rich in its presentation while the reproduction of some of Keaton’s long familiar gags lumber along at a fraction of the pace they are remembered.   Additionally, we leap forward and backward in time with only projected title cards to keep us on track.  

As Keaton, Stewart’s look and voice are spot on.  However, the physical creations that Keaton was so well known for come off with some effort.  It’s one thing to see Keaton in his heyday doing pratfalls and stunts in slightly cranked grainy and flickering projections, while quite another to see the work attempted in real time on stage.  Something gets lost in translation.   Keaton complains to his pal Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (Scott Leggett) while attempting his transition to “Talkies,” that he can no longer hear the film running through the camera.  His comedic timing was inspired by taking his cues from the clicks of the film as the camera rattled away. This allowed him to time his gags methodically.    

Some moments of interaction between the Old Keaton and Young Keaton (Joe Fria, a ringer for Stewart) are inspired.  I heard someone ask, “What do you do when you become a caricature of yourself?” Young Keaton appears throughout in an attempt to bring Old Keaton back on track, mostly unsuccessfully.  Keaton’s marriage to Natalie Talmadge (Norma’s sister) failed because of Keaton’s drinking and irresponsibility to his family.  Eventually, she took their two sons, gave them the Talmadge name and kept Buster from seeing them. A moment of real emotion emerges at the end of the play where Fria returns as James, Buster’s eighteen year old son.  “You look just like me.”  “I know.”

Ryan Johnson’s lively piano accompaniment is reminiscent of the days of silent cinema where musical improvisations helped create the mood of the movies.  

STONEFACE by Vanessa Claire Stewart
Pasadena Playhouse
39 S. El Molino
Pasadena, CA 91101
Through June 29, 2014
Tickets and information
626 356 7529

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