Los Angeles Theater Review: STONEFACE (Pasadena Playhouse)

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by Jason Rohrer on June 11, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles


When it was originally presented at Sacred Fools, Vanessa Claire Stewart’s play had a subtitle (The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton), but Stoneface Productions and the Pasadena Playhouse have dispensed with that (along with a few scenes), which is good because Stoneface is a much better title.  It’s interesting that the new production kept the old title on the film projected at the top of the show.  Ambivalence is key in this production, and when it works, it’s glorious.

Jake Broder, French Stewart, Tegan Ashton Cohan and Rena Strober in STONEFACE.

On a gorgeous stage (Joel Daavid’s rich, busy, well-engineered set; Ben Rock’s excellently integrated projection design; Jeremy Pivnick’s stellar lighting; Jessica Olson’s playful, impeccable costumes), a life of filmmaker, silent movie star, and epic alcoholic Buster Keaton is paraded with tasteful splendor.  It’s a parade of missteps and injustices, some perpetrated by Keaton and some upon him.  The script Conor Duffy, Jake Broder, French Stewart, Pat Towne and Daisy Eagan in STONEFACE.tells among the most colorful of sad stories, with dire biographical incidents illustrated and uplifted by extended comedy bits, staged and filmed and both, involving impressive stunts, pratfalls, and interplay between the live and the recorded.  It’s a fragmented narrative, and the rhyme in its pattern is easy to see, if not the reason.  Still, it never quite feels discombobulating as it flashes forward and backward ten years at a jump.  While some of the scenes clunk squarely into travelogue territory, there is poetry here, and wisdom of a safe, simple sort, and a good deal of information gets across very clearly.  I’d like to see more plays by Vanessa Claire Stewart (married, incidentally, to her star; come to think of it, I’d like her to write him some more plays).

French Stewart in STONEFACE.As Keaton, French Stewart elicits a great deal from himself and from the audience, painting a portrait of the artist as a middle-aged drunk with pathos and perfect timing.  His face and body are instruments of resonance and he puts them to good use here, embodying but not impersonating Keaton’s rubber-limbed, straightlaced personage.  The supporting cast is strong, with Tegan Ashton Cohen exploiting the role of Keaton’s first wife in a knockout physical comedy performance, and Joe Fria displaying much dexterity as young Keaton.  As producer Joseph Schenck, Jake Broder touchingly exemplifies the yes-and-no attitude Hollywood held toward the erratic genius; as Louis B. Mayer, Pat Towne exemplifies the no.

Jaime Robledo’s direction is at its best in logistical matters – staging physical routines, directing the enormous traffic patterns that wheel set pieces and dressing and flies and flats among leaping, somersaulting, or (inevitably) sprawling actors.  But there is a uniform timing problem in this production, a two-beats-too-slow French Stewart, Rena Strober, Jake Broder and Tegan Ashton Cohan in STONEFACE.quality to most of the pacing despite all that hard work on presentation.  The dramatic scenes play without much urgency, stately when they could be lively. Several routines and scenes of comic dialogue fall flat, leaving my audience quiet before work that, properly staged, should have had us shouting.  Take the first rehab center scene, a comic exposition Jake Broder, Joe Fria (laying), French Stewart, Tegan Ashton Cohan (background), Scott Leggett and Pat Towne in STONEFACE.between Stewart and Daisy Eagan in which Eagan does almost all the talking and must create the entire rhythm of the scene with a high-energy, super-annoying characterization: Eagan is a fine actress, utterly capable of making this scene sing.  But, consistently, the moments sag such that good-enough lines sound tinny, and the writing shows its seams.  It’s a heartbreaking problem with this production, an expansion of the original presentation in the intimate Sacred Fools space.  It is at least partly an issue of volume: This transfer feels like it’s working very, very deliberately to avoid being swallowed by a cavernous Playhouse.

Daisy Eagan and French Stewart in STONEFACE.photos by Jim Cox

Pasadena Playhouse
39 S. El Molino Avenue in Pasadena
Tues-Friday at 8; Sat at 4 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
scheduled to end on June 29, 2014
for tickets, call 626-356-7529
or visit www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org

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