If you¬íre pining for perfect pratfalls, you¬íve got to see ¬ìStoneface¬î because its star, French Stewart, has them down ¬ìprat.¬î
Stewart, best known for his six seasons as the alien communicator on TV¬ís ¬ì3rd Rock from the Sun,¬î displays a breathtaking physicality as he portrays comedy icon Buster Keaton in a role custom-tailored for him by his wife, playwright Vanessa Claire Stewart. The play, ¬ìStoneface: The Rise And Fall And Rise of Buster Keaton,¬î is currently having its illustrious world premiere at the Sacred Fools Theatre in Hollywood.
Keaton, young son of a vaudeville family, was admonished early on by his martinet father not to laugh onstage at his own antics because ¬ìif you laugh, the audience won¬ít.¬î Thus was born the frozen, immobile face that Keaton hid behind for the rest of his long career.
In ¬ìStoneface,¬î Keaton¬ís prickly persona continually engages in denigrating dialogue with his younger self, played with mirror-image panache by Joe Fria. Fria¬ís role is to chide him on his descent from one of the most popular stars of silent movies to the drunken, twice-divorced has-been he has become. The two also engage in a comic fight scene that brings their love-hate relationship to a memorable peak.
Stewart reprises many of Keaton¬ís famous shticks, throwing himself around the stage in a bone-breaking display of perfectly timed comedy and performing ingenious stunts with ladders and trampolines. The entire production, in fact, is brilliant in its simulation of silent-era camerawork, as the players chase each other with mincing, herky-jerky movements around the stage. They also step, with perfect timing, from the stage into a screen projection of themselves, and out again.
They are accompanied by the bouncy silent-era piano-playing of Ryan Johnson and the baroquely lettered title cards that provide some of the dialogue and exposition that is too difficult for the players to pantomime and too difficult for the audience to lip-read.
Director Jaime Robledo has taken full advantage of his 10-member cast, using them to expeditiously move the furniture around Joel Daavid¬ís consistently innovative set design, as well as to portray such luminaries as Keaton¬ís friend and mentor Fatty Arbuckle (expertly played by Scott Leggett), his second wife Natalie Talmadge (Tegan Ashton Cohan), Louis B. Mayer (Pat Towne), Charlie Chaplin (Guy Picot), et al.
Although Keaton rejected the introduction of ¬ìtalking movies,¬î (¬ìNobody wants to see a bunch of people talking their heads off,¬î he says), Stewart does augment his silent performance with some interesting speech. What¬ís surprising is the low, Shakespearean tone in which he speaks ¬ó exactly as stentorian as you would expect Keaton to sound in real life.
A final satisfying note: in 1952, when the legendary Chaplin engages him in a comeback role after many years in theatrical limbo, Keaton delivers a moving thanks: ¬ìI¬ím beyond grateful that you would work with an amateur like me,¬î he says. To which Chaplin responds, ¬ìWe don¬ít live long enough to be anything else.¬î
¬ìStoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton,¬î presented by the Sacred Fools Theater Co., will continue at the Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Dr. in Hollywood Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through July 15. Call (310) 281-8337 or visit www.sacredfools.org for tickets.
And in case you didn¬ít get my message, I heartily suggest that you do.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.