Between his trademark deadpan facial expression that inspired the nickname of “The Great Stoneface,” his daring stunt work and his exquisite timing, Keaton was responsible for some of the greatest movies of the silent era. But like so many great people, his personal life was a roller coaster of ups and downs. Elements of that life are now on display at the Pasadena Playhouse’s production of Vanessa Claire Stewart’s new play, “Stoneface,” starring her husband French Stewart (“3rd Rock From the Sun”) as Keaton. It’s a remarkable evening of live theatre.
Since “Stoneface” is about an iconic actor from the era of silent movies, Ms. Stewart and director Jaime Robledo have created what, in many ways, is a live silent movie and a very loving tribute to that bygone era of Hollywood history. As the audience enters the theatre, they are greeted by footage from some of Keaton’s classic comedies. The play itself is constructed to play like a silent movie, complete with title cards and composer Ryan Johnson accompanying the action on the piano at the side of the stage.
Much of the action either recreates classic Keaton bits from his silent classics, or is inspired by them. For that, Robledo is as much choreographer as he is director with dance like movements on stage. Visually, French Stewart does a magnificent job in recreating the on screen magic and mayhem of Buster Keaton. But his speaking voice is another story. Keaton had a distinct gravely speaking voice, especially as he got older. But while Stewart got the gravelly part down, his speech pattern is so formal that it comes off as unnatural, especially in the early first act. In addition, some of Keaton’s dialog comes off as inauthentic, especially when it comes to profanity. Whether it’s historically accurate or not, it felt more like the kind of language people use in today than in 1929.
Speech pattern and dialog aside, Stewart does an amazing job in a physically demanding role, practically channeling the spirit of Keaton in those scene recreations, including the famous “falling house” gag from “Steamboat Bill.” Equally impressive is Joe Fria as Keaton’s younger self. Keaton often debates and even fights with his younger self as a way for playwright Stewart to illustrate Keaton’s inner turmoil. Like Stewart, Fria holds his own as Keaton, serving in many ways as an interactive Greek Chorus commenting on the events of Keaton’s life.
This incarnation of “Stoneface” was originally produced by the Sacred Fools Company as an Equity waiver production in a much smaller venue. Although I never saw the original production, it clearly had to be expanded to fill the much larger stage of the Pasadena Playhouse, which it does quite well. But is it ready for Broadway? The potential is there to be sure. The way Robledo integrates live action and black and white motion picture footage shot in the style of silent movies is both imaginative and compelling and the performances are all first rate. Sure, it could use a bit of tightening here and there and a few dialog tweaks, but it remains a mesmerizing evening of live theatre, well worth seeing.
“Stoneface” plays at the Pasadena Playhouse through June 29. www.pasadenaplayhouse.org