Saturday, June 14, 2014

Review: STONEFACE Gets a New Life at Pasadena Playhouse

L-R: Jake Broder, French Stewart, Tegan Ashton Cohan
and Rena Strober. Photos by Jim Cox.

Vanessa Claire Stewart’s Stoneface, the Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton, first produced at Sacred Fools Theatre Company in 2012, finds fresh life in a newly remounted production simply titled Stoneface at Pasadena Playhouse. With a bigger budget, more space in which to play, and clearly enhanced with an eye to continuing its life beyond Los Angeles, it should be set for a rousing success. The behind-the-scenes story of a comic genius whose own human failings caused him much pain throughout his life is the kind of Hollywood drama the public can’t get enough of and beautifully captures the deep sadness that accompanied his great success.

Two Buster Keatons exist in this tale which is told from the perspective of the older Keaton portrayed with astounding physical eloquence by French Stewart. Joe Fria plays Keaton’s younger self with inspired efficiency appearing like a ghost from the past to accuse, taunt and otherwise facilitate the catharsis of his mature self. This duality stands at the core of the play.

As scenes jump back and forth in time, we see Keatons relationships with his wives: the annoying Mae Scriven (Daisy Eagan), self-centered Natalie Talmadge (Tegan Ashton Cohan) and lovely Eleanor Norris (Rena Strober), the woman who would eventually help Keaton find some quiet joy in his later years. We watch as famous clips are brought to life like the “one-room house” sequence in which he and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (Scott Leggett) pass objects back and forth across a table using a complicated system of pulleys, sandbags and exact movements. But mostly we feel for this man, who held a world in the stillness of his face.

I fell in love with Stoneface at Sacred Fools and as much as I wanted to see it revealed bigger and better in all its glory at the Playhouse, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something had gotten lost in translation. Jokes, sight gags, and stage business that had the audience roaring the first time around left theatregoers strangely silent at the Playhouse.

Though well-executed, there is a draftiness that seems to have taken hold, most obvious in Act I where the actors have become louder, more stylized, and are either working so hard that the drama feels forced or are taking so much time that it kills the humor. In either case, it obstructs the flow and distances the audience. Seated close to the stage you might feel more connected to what they are doing because you can see their eyes but from elsewhere in the theater you’ll miss the subtleties that were so beautifully rendered in its initial outing.

From a technical standpoint, the production has flourished with set design (Joel Daavid), lighting (Jeremy Pivnick) and video projections (Ben Rock and Anthony Backman) ramping up the vintage visual impact of the early cinematic period. Ryan Johnson plays his original score live as he would have done had this been a silent film set back in the day and Cricket S. Myers’ sound design brings it all together. Costumes by Jessica Olson are period specific and, for the most part functional, however the “spite marriage” sequence felt choreographed by the numbers and encumbered with tear-away clothing that didn’t always give at first tug.

You can tell that this new work has been lovingly created by all involved and, with so much already going for it, one hopes that the company will continue to shape it for a long life ahead. What they learn from its expansion into a larger theater like the Playhouse will certainly help with that success going forward.

Daisy Eagan and French Stewart

L-R:  Jake Broder, Joe Fria (laying), French Stewart, Tegan Ashton Cohan
(background), Scott Leggett and Pat Towne

French Stewart as Buster Keaton
L-R: French Stewart, Rena Strober, Jake Broder and Tegan Ashton Cohan

June 3 - 29, 2014
Pasadena Playhouse

39 South El Molino Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91101

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