A Not So Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Playhouse: How to Stuff a Wild Buster
First of all, Stoneface does not refer to Easter Island’s monolithic ancestral images carved out of rock by Rapa Nui’s Polynesian stone sculptors. Rather, Stoneface is a bioplay about the great silent film comic Buster Keaton, who was noted for great visual panache and his onscreen persona of not showing much emotion and remaining nonplussed, even as the world (and sets) literally fell down around him. And asVanessa Claire Stewart’s (who previously wrote and co-starred in Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara) two-acter reveals, this happened quite often onscreen and off -- during the comedic genius’ tumultuous life.
This is a revival of the original production, then-called Stoneface, The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton, which was presented a couple of years ago at L.A.’s spatially diminutive yet imaginatively expansive Sacred Fools Theatre, a few miles east of Theatre Row. The script is more or less the same and the cast includes some of the originals: Guy Picot reprises his role as a rather generous and self-confident Charlie Chaplin. Scott Leggett returns as Roscoe Arbuckle (and as Buster would say: “DON’T call him ‘Fatty’!!!”). And of course, sitcom veteran French Stewart stars as the older version of the comedian who was nicknamed “the Great Stoneface”, while Joe Fria is back playing the younger Keaton. As with the original, Jaime Robledo helms this iteration of Buster’s saga.
Like Stewart’s Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara her Stoneface has hit the “big time.” This Pasadena Playhouse production is a case study in what happens to a play when it transitions from a small venue to a larger one, going from a sort of “Off-Broadway” to a “Broadway”-type of showcase. With 686 seats Pasadena Playhouse literally has about 10 times the capacity that Sacred Fools’ outpost has. One imagines that in terms of resources, the Pasadena theater likewise has more money and so on at its disposal. One can sense this, for example, with the inventive incorporation of a certain large mode of transportation that is associated with one of Buster’s masterpieces, 1926’s The General.
However, what this version of Stoneface might gain by transitioning to a presumably wealthier -- and roomier -- thee-a-tuh it definitely loses in the intimacy that petite stages like Sacred Fools affords audiences. For some strange reason I was given tickets near the rear of the orchestra seats, which made seeing the sometimes intricate mise-en-scene, sets, costumes and props -- not to mention facial expressions (even if the bioplay’s about the Great Stoneface) -- difficult to see. Publicists need to realize that reviewers act as proxies for their legions of readers who, based on their critiques, may decide whether or not to plunk down their hard earned buckeroos down to buy tickets. Sitting reviewers out in the hinterlands does plays a disservice. During the second act I was able to move up near the front and I ended up enjoying the show much more, so I strongly advise theatergoers interested in attending Stoneface to splurge and get good seats in order to enjoy this show as much as possible.
Buster’s heyday was around 90 years ago, and the script needs to establish what a genius and huge, popular star Keaton was at the height of his career, when he helmed classics such as Sherlock Jr., The Paleface and The Navigator. Instead, the playwright merely takes this for granted, and most of the bioplay, especially the first act, portrays a broken down Buster on the skids; some viewers felt this was too negative. This reminded me of Wired, Bob Woodward’s 1980s biography of John Belushi -- reading Woodward’s account no one unfamiliar with the SNL star would ever have been able to deduce that he was funny.
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Some ticket buyers had problems with the bioplay’s flashback format, although I quite enjoyed it’s going back and forth in time. But this might be because I’m a film historian who is familiar with and a fan of Buster’s oeuvre and life. However, the script offers absolutely no insight into why this genius was so lacking in confidence that he made such disastrous marriages and even worse business decisions, selling himself and his art short. (Although his arch-rival Chaplin also made some bad marriages, he stuck to his aesthetic guns and insisted upon artistic independence through the making of his final feature, 1967’s underrated The Countess from Hong Kong,with Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren.)
The playwright’s decision to depict and cast two competing Busters -- the younger and older one, played by the author’s husband (the bioplay was her gift to French Stewart) -- is however, psychologically insightful. Buster, like many of us, was divided within himself and often at odds with himself. In this sense Stoneface is a worthy addition to works about poor, misunderstood geniuses. The play cleverly uses silent cinema conventions, including piano accompaniment by Ryan Johnson who scored an Ovation Award for his ivory tickling during the play’s original run. The staging also involves a highly creative use of a screen. Some of Buster’s skits and stunts are hilariously reenacted to good effect, literally bringing down the roof. Viewers might go gaga for these sight gags.
Although one can’t cover everything in a two or so hour play, Buster’s latter appearances in the 1960s movies Beach Blanket Bingo, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini and his final role as an old roaming Roman in Richard Lester’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum go completely unmentioned.
This production is mainly for film fans and aficionados of comedy, and is in keeping with some of the Playhouse’s other shows, such as Orson’s Shadow (about -- who else? -- Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh) and March’s Gene Kelly tribute presented by the hoofer’s widow. Overall, I preferred the original Sacred Fools version of this work, which loses more than it gains in its transition to the Pasadena Playhouse, which also “poached” its executive director Elizabeth Doran from her Actors’ Gang perch. Bigger is not always better, and given the loss of immediacy at the Playhouse, if you want to buy tickets sit as close as possible to the stage in order to derive maximum enjoyment. Especially for a play about a screen actor who was always ready for his close-up.
Stoneface takes place Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., with matinees on Saturdays at 4:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m., plus Sunday 7:00 p.m. performances, through June 29 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101. For more info: www.pasadenaplayhouse.org; (626) 356-7529.