Behind the Stone Face
French Stewart stars as Buster Keaton in an illuminating new play about the silent film actor’s Rise and Fall and Rise at the Pasadena Playhouse.
By Bettijane Levine 06/02/2014
Many people reading this may not even know who Buster Keaton was, or why the Pasadena Playhouse would present a play about the silent film star almost 50 years after his death. But the world’s film historians and cinephiles have weighed in on Keaton’s colossal and enduring talents and judged him an underrated genius, whose 1920s films are relevant and timeless, and whose innovations laid the groundwork for much that Hollywood has accomplished since.
Critic Roger Ebert wrote that Keaton’s brilliant films “make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies.” Entertainment Weekly named Keaton the seventh-greatest director in history. The American Film Institute ranked him number 21 among the greatest film stars who ever lived.
To these savants, Keaton onscreen was magic. An incredibly agile physical comedian, he wrote, directed and starred in his early films, maintaining a deadpan, poker-face expression throughout, thus earning himself the nickname, The Great Stone Face. Yet he was anything but inexpressive. Through his large, luminous eyes and poetically subtle movements, he conveyed a full range of emotions and a sweet sincerity that could make audiences roar with laughter and also bring them to tears.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of Keaton’s story is that his own life took as many furious twists and turns as any portrayed in his movies. By the age of 28, he had made 31 extraordinary films — writing, directing and starring in all. Hailed around the world as a genius and visionary, he was at the pinnacle of the evolving art form. But within the next five years he had plunged to its depths, unheralded and underemployed. Battles with ex-wives, alcohol and ignorant studio heads all ensued, along with the invention of talkies. The toxic combination toppled his career — but just for a while. In the end, Keaton overcame it all. How he did it is the tale told in Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton, at the Pasadena Playhouse from June 3 through 29.
The play, first produced in 2012 at L.A.’s Sacred Fools Theater, was hailed as a hit by the Los Angeles Times, whose reviewer called it an “inspired” production with “remarkable inventiveness and style.” Of actor French Stewart, who stars as Keaton, the paper said, “He displays a comical gravitas…combined with sheer physical virtuosity that is, quite simply, a revelation.”
Stewart, a fine physical comedian best known for playing Harry Solomon, the idiot uncle in the now-classic TV sitcom 3rd Rock From the Sun, describes himself as a lifelong Keaton fan. “Buster Keaton is my hero,” he told Arroyo Monthly in a recent interview. “He’s the greatest movie star that ever walked the face of the earth — and that’s because of his sheer talent. He did it all with his body and imagination — with no technology. He was so elegant in his comedy. He had this great stone face, but he expressed so much with his body, his movements. And so much happens in his eyes. He tells you everything. He was an athlete, maybe rivaled only by Jackie Chan or Michael Jordan.”
Keaton’s greatness was “lost to the public,” Stewart says, partly because of his temporary battle with the bottle and partly because he was never a shrewd businessman, like contemporaries Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. What’s more, he was a humble and gracious person, not inclined to self-promotion. Such a character was ill-suited for the fiercely competitive and sometimes cruel world of early Hollywood. “Keaton’s story has never been told correctly,” Stewart says. “We worked with the blessing of his family. They saw the show in its first incarnation at Sacred Fools.”
There are some physical similarities between Stewart and Keaton, the actor says, and also similarities in the arcs of their lives. “I’ve lived a similar life to his, but just to a lesser degree. I can never pretend I’m as good as Buster Keaton, but I’ve lived my life in show business, and it’s gone up and it’s gone down. I got beat up physically doing children’s movies. I’ve done a ton of them: Home Alone 4, Inspector Gadget and so on. Keaton got beaten up while growing up in vaudeville with his parents, who threw the child around as part of their act.”
Keaton’s love life also had its ups and downs, finally evolving into a happy marriage that lasted until his death. As for Stewart, he met his wife, Vanessa, in 2010 in the Green Room of the Geffen Playhouse, while they were performing on different stages. “We got to know each other and fell in love.”
Vanessa Claire Stewart, an actress and playwright — she co-wrote and starred in the Geffen hit Louis and Keely Live at the Sahara — has since given birth to their daughter, Helene Claire (now 19 months old) and to Stoneface, in which her husband stars. “Vanessa knew I loved Buster Keaton, and she surprised me with this play. She wrote it secretly for me, over the course of a year. It was my birthday present,” says Stewart, who has worked in theater and films since he graduated from New York’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts 30 years ago. In addition to 3rd Rock From the Sun, he has appeared in dozens of other hit TV shows, including Seinfeld, The Larry Sanders Show, Community, Bones, The Closer, Castle and Private Practice, and he currently has a recurring role in Mom, Chuck Lorre’s new CBS comedy starring Allison Janney and Anna Faris.
He has also maintained an active presence on the stage, with recent credits that include Matthew Modine Saves the Alpacas at the Geffen, Watson at Sacred Fools and Voice Lessons opposite Laurie Metcalf on Theatre Row Off Broadway.
Stoneface director Jaime Robledo, who also helmed the original production, has won a string of awards for his work. He’s been dubbed “the Julie Taymor of Hollywood” by some critics for his wizardry in creating epic productions for small stages. Robledo says that Stoneface “connects audiences to a genius and lets them see what makes him tick. It’s a two-act play, fully scripted, incredibly tightly choreographed. It’s a play in the format of a musical. But instead of musical numbers, we use the silent clips from his films.” Some of Keaton’s incredible stunts are recreated on the Pasadena Playhouse stage, Robledo says. The L.A. Times called the production “virtuosic” and “surreally creative.” Robledo calls the play “a gift to the audience, and a gift to me.”
What makes it so compelling to audiences, the director continues, is the trajectory of Keaton’s life. “We see the rise of a legend, watch him fall, then pick himself up. It’s about genius and the self-discovery of an artist, about someone who had to discover what’s important to him.”
French Stewart as Keaton is riveting, Robledo says. “It’s astonishing. He’s an incredibly skilled physical comedian. I don’t know how he does it, but he masters this art of conveying emotion and connecting to an audience without so much as the blink of an eye. He is a magician. It’s a talent even the most skilled actors do not have. I’m so grateful he lives in Buster’s skin.”
Previews begin at 8 p.m. June 3 through 6 and at 4 and 8 p.m. June 7, with full performances starting June 8. The curtain rises at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays through June 29. Tickets cost $34 to $54 for previews, $54 to $74 for regular performances. The Pasadena Playhouse is located at 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Call (626) 356-7529 or visit pasadenaplayhouse.com.