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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton/
By Jon Magaril
The first astonishment takes place at the start. After a silent film prelude has been projected on an upstage screen, each actor enters through the audience, crosses the stage, and steps behind the screen to “enter” the projected image. Ryan Johnson's live piano music accompanies this coup de theatre/cinema, presumably inspired by Keaton's silent classic Sherlock Jr.
The sequence establishes playwright Vanessa Claire Stewart and director Jaime Robledo's dazzlingly apt approach. They tell Keaton's story by theatricalizing his creative language. Silent scenes ingeniously quote his films to depict his courtships, disastrous marriages, career problems, and addiction to alcohol. The stunning act one climax takes its cue from Steamboat Bill, Jr. His life crumbling around him, Keaton (French Stewart, scoring a career best), stands unflappably still as a wooden house frame tips over him and crashes to the floor.
Dialogue scenes bear the blunt simplicity of silent inter-titles. As the play stretches on, however, the lack of verbal sophistication becomes a limitation. The biggest problem stems from the non-linear structure, which marks the only major step away from Keaton's style. Caroming around the timeline saps the long piece of momentum.
Ms. Stewart nevertheless has good reasons for the strategy. Starting at a late low point establishes the forty-eight-year-old Mr. Stewart as the chief figure of identification. Returning often to later moments gives him more leeway to play younger ages briefly without testing our belief.
Ms. Stewart is also battling the well-worn tropes of celebrity biographies, which nonetheless fit the basic lines of Keaton's life. An abusive father teaches young Buster (named for his knockabout falls) to bottle up his emotions to give the audience room to express theirs. Cue alcoholism and misbegotten marriage.
The brilliant Keaton rises to the top of his field only to have his most ambitious and expensive work go unappreciated. Cue career woes, financial hardship, and bitter divorce. Humbled, he takes whatever work comes his way and meets a sweet young woman. Cue slow but steady turnaround towards sobriety, critical respect, and happiness.
The to-and-fro timeline helps steer the narrative away from clich? but it seems more an act of avoidance than creative inspiration. An overarching Keatonian conceit that supports the lack of linearity – or a shorter running time - might prove more constructive.
In every scene Ms. Stewart provides thrilling opportunities for Robledo and his team. They deliver on them all. The dexterous cast provides equal dollops of pratfalls and heart. Tegan Ashton Cohan's got moxie and stellar vaudevillian skills as first wife Natalie Talmadge. Scott Leggett and Guy Picot evoke the personae of “Fatty” Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin without being shackled by mimicry. Leggett brings an extra layer of sadness and Picot an intriguing aura of mystery that give them the aura of legends.
Erin Sparks, in a Mary Wickes-style turn as the nurse/wife, and Pat Towne as studio chief Louis B Mayer nail the style of early talkies. Rena Strober, Pat Towne, and understudy Anthony Backman charm in smaller roles.
The architecture of the playing space itself evokes the early film stages of the teens and twenties. The design team works wonders from there. Dance and stunt choreographers Natasha Norman and Andrew Amani, respectively, provide more thrills than the new Cirque du Soleil cinema-inspired Iris with a thimble-full of its resources.
The production's biggest surprise is its emotional impact. The strapping Donal Thoms-Cappello as Young Buster isn't a perfect fit for the quirkier Stewart or Keaton, but he conveys a wary hopefulness that resonates every time he appears to goad his older half.
Having two Busters occupy the same space alerts us to the dichotomies Stewart explores between young and old, silence and discussion, promise and remorse. When Thoms-Cappello returns for the final scene as Keaton's long-estranged son, their connection unites all the binary opposites in a moving sock to the gut.
Ms. Stewart wrote the play as a present to honor her future husband's adoration for Keaton. This dual act of love buoys every moment, no matter how downbeat. French Stewart had feared he'd gotten too old to portray his idol. His gratitude, respect, and personal prowess brings a grace that's both physical and soulful. Stoneface:The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton is easily the best waiver production so far this season.