With the final performance of “Stoneface”, the play about Buster Keaton’s early movie career (the silent movie era) the venerable Pasadena Playhouse 2013/2014 season came to a close Sunday, June 29th.
The Bio-play, written by Vanessa Claire Stewart, and directed by Jaime Robledo, about the great stoic, silent movie comedian who never smiled, hence the nickname “Stoneface”, was a mixed bag of comedy, pathos, and melodrama, but was somewhat troubling in its construction as a play. Movies have disciplines unique to their medium when it comes to crafting a story. The theatre has its set of rules that apply to the stage and the willing disbelief adage on the part of the audience.
In the case of “Stoneface”, it was a real challenge to recreate the elements, sight-gags, and pacing that made the silent era of movies so visually appealing and enjoyable for audiences of the silver screen. The stage, however, is the medium of the live actor and narrative text. Great ideas and concepts spring from the stage into society. At times, both mediums can move mountains with emotions and ideas.
The star of “Stoneface” is Los Angeles-based actor French Stewart, who inhabits the body and soul of Keaton. According to program notes Stewart has been a lifetime fan of the great comedian/actor. On stage Stewart looks like Keaton, flattop hat and all, but once he opened his mouth to speak, this deep magnificent voice that sounds like Richard Burton is performing, made one sit up in one’s seat and begin to pay attention. The cast that surrounded Stewart was no less passionate or committed to the characters they played as well: Scott Leggett as Fatty Arbuckle, pal and performer friend of Keaton; Jake Broder as Joseph Schenck; Rena Strober as Norma Talmadge and Eleanor Keaton; Tegan Ashton Cohan as Natalie Talmadge; Joe Fria as Young Buster Keaton; Daisy Eagan as Mae Scriven; Pat Towne as Louis B. Mayer; Conor Duffy as Edward Sedgwick and George Jessel; and Guy Picot as Charlie Chaplin. All delivered solid performances. A special kudo goes to Ryan Johnson, the piano accompanist throughout all of the silent movie sequences in the play. Without him none of the on screen and on stage characterizations would have been possible. There are series of moments in which the medium of film blends with the on stage action by the characters. It’s a very clever directorial touch, and the production was full of such touches.
“Stoneface”s creative team led by director Robledo was first rate. The playhouse has a state-of-the-art technical arsenal for Robeldo to command and he used it with inventiveness and creativity. The Set Design by Joel Daavid reflected the special requirements of Projection Designers Ben Rock and Anthony Backman, who were complemented by Lighting Designer Jeremy Pivnick’s lighting plot. Original music for the production was written and performed by Ryan Johnson, with Sound Design by Cricket S. Myers.
It’s going to take a little more time to acclimate audiences to more and more non-linear theatrical productions emanating from our stages these days. Torches have passed. Creative artists, composers, and lyricists, and traditional playwrights, are now thinking and creating more and more “outside the box” so to speak. In an effort to reach and capture a new and younger theatre- going demographic, be prepared for changes to what used to be called your “grandfather’s style of theatre”. Embrace it and you’ll enjoy the experience more.
If you missed any productions from the Playhouses’ 2013/2014 season that’s pity. But you can correct that oversight by purchasing a Season Subscription for 2014/1015. Artistic Director Sheldon Epps mentioned the first production of their upcoming season is the wonderful Cole Porter Musical “Kiss Me Kate”, which opens in September. I can’t wait.