Los Angeles is not exactly well-known for its flourishing theater scene, so when I stepped into the Pasadena Playhouse for an evening performance of Stoneface, my fingers were crossed. After taking a thirty-second scan of my fellow attendees, however, I was sure that I was the youngest person in the building–and this made me skeptical as to whether or not I would connect to, or enjoy, or even understand the play. Thankfully, I was wrong–and pleasantly surprised.
Written by playwright Vanessa Claire Stewart, Stoneface tells the story of Buster Keaton, played by French Stewart, and his early beginnings as an entertainer, shining a spotlight on the many downfalls he faced both artistically and personally. The play takes us from Buster’s lowest point—where misery and alcohol drown the remains of his career and marriage—back to the beginning of his path, where we meet a spritely young Buster Keaton (who later serves as a conscience for old-Buster’s struggles).
In terms of structure and pacing, the play was crafted masterfully, seamlessly contrasting the past and present. The scenes leapt in time and location swiftly but smoothly, from Buster’s film work in Mexico to the MGM studio offices to his work with Charlie Chaplin. The narrative structure was designed to keep the audience both on their toes and thoroughly entertained. But the way in which the storyline unfolded wasn’t the only unique element of the play.
In the very first scene (and periodically throughout the show), a giant film screen appeared above the actors on the stage–a feature that initially perplexed me. It became clear as the play went on, however, that the movie screen was an integral part of the set, and contributed to the overall inventive nature of the production. As an actor left the stage, he would appear on the screen, dressed the same, continuing the storyline, and all the while weaving together the mediums of film and theatre. This provided for a truly creative and stimulating visual design.
Buster Keaton’s influence on Hollywood was heavy during the silent film period, and aptly, the play was half-silent. This element came as a surprise, but the silence was by no means less entertaining. In fact, it allowed the audience to appreciate the craft of theater in a whole new light. In the silence, I began paying more attention to the actors’ subtlest movements, whether it was how they flinched in moments of surprise or how their eyes fixed towards the audience with desperation in moments of hopelessness. These are the things that actors train so intensely to master, but that we as an audience usually overlook.
Admittedly, I did not know much about Buster Keaton before seeing this play, but I can say wholeheartedly that Stoneface makes you care deeply about him, regardless of your background knowledge. Buster’s character spirals downward, becoming estranged from his family, as he’s pressured by Hollywood to succumb to “what sells”–a struggle that is still relevant today, particularly to us Angelenos. However, the story does not abandon Buster in his downfalls; rather, it recounts his successful albeit painful rise, as well. Though Buster starts at rock bottom, Stewart’s gripping performance makes it impossible not to root for his character’s ultimate triumph.
Stoneface will continue through June 29th at The Playhouse Mainstage. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets.