Every now and then you come across a show that so thoroughly woos the audience right from the start that they can’t hold their applause until the end but clap right the way through. Stoneface is such a show. A semi-biographical account of the tribulations of silent film actor Buster Keaton (though you don’t need to know anything about him going in to enjoy the proceedings), Stoneface is a meticulously crafted Vaudeville machine that displays a startling mix of care and humility. Like its seasoned subject, the play works to earn every laugh it gets but never gets carried away by its own cleverness, actually thanking the audience for their time at the end and earning a standing ovation.
For a play that devotes an easy ten minutes to a romantic chase scene and another to a fantastically elaborate gag about lighting cigars and pouring drinks, Stoneface also displays great wisdom and heart. Comparisons to the film The Artist are inevitable. While that exploration of the final days of silent film dealt with change and loss of livelihood, Stoneface is perhaps more hopeful, musing on artistic integrity, on coping with change and human frailty, and on the value and permanence of art (and the people who make it!) as time goes on.
Playwright Vanessa Claire Stewart’s script is fairly linear despite its flashbacks and imaginary characters, tracking Keaton’s life from Vaudeville-kid beginnings, where he learned to keep a straight face at any cost to get the laugh, to marital issues and alcoholic decrepitude. It is easy to see that she wrote the piece specifically for French Stewart, who plays Keaton. The actor is a master of the titular ‘stone face’, stumbling and dancing his way through a mix of silent scenes and dialogue with a stoic expression that is so tragic that you can’t help but laugh.
The play starts with supertitles and character introductions for Mr. Stewart and the rest of the ensemble as they enter through the audience and go behind a screen, at which point they enter a black and white video world that is consistently used to elaborate on the action, but never encroaches upon it. Appropriately, about half of the play or every other scene, is silent except for a live piano score (played and musically directed by Ryan Johnson) that underpins the performances and proves that you can tell a story through movement and music every bit as effectively as through words. One of my favorite moments came in the second act during one such silent scene, when I looked over and saw that my entire row, including two young kids, were tapping their feet along to the jingle of the piano.
Stoneface plays with language in many interesting ways, from ongoing supertitles to a scene set in Mexico that played with Spanish, to a personal favorite in which we followed a flirtatious scene almost entirely done through whispers in which the piano played the intention of whatever was being said and the characters reacted accordingly. The physical inventiveness is always top-notch, playing with blatantly metaphorical environmental or physical barriers that must be overcome, from a bad telephone connection to a struggle through a storm. The conclusion of a scene almost always led to a burst of applause, and even when the intricate machinery of props floundered (which was rare) the audience laughed and clapped and supported the actors through the glitch.
I’m not sure who to credit with the construction of the stage, which reminded me of nothing so much as a giant medieval music box—its seems like prop designer Heather Ho, set designer Joel Daavid (and assistant DeAnne Millais), welder Zak Holman, projection designers Ben Rock and Anthony Backman, and special effects/master builder James McCartney all had a hand. Likewise, for the movement and staging it seems I have my choice of which artist to complement, from director Jamie Robledo (with assistant Jonas Oppenheim) to dance choreographer Natasha Norman to stunt/fight choreographer Andrew Amani. Jeremy Pivnick’s lighting and Jaime Robledo’s sound kept up with the whole apparatus nicely, and I haven’t even listed half of the production staff, which includes such positions as ‘wig upkeep’. Having such a large dedicated team is rare in the small theatre world, but this is a production that needs it and the results certainly paid off.
Likewise, I must confess that I can’t really pick out ‘exceptional performances’ among ensemble members because they all worked together so seamlessly as a team in a multitude of roles and positions. Again, they are a legion, and each time a new character entered I had to stop and ask myself if this was a new actor or just another disguise.
If I were to offer any substantive critique of Stoneface, it would be that in all the cleverness and planning of the show’s constant gags, a spark of spontaneity is lost and while each individual scene surprises and delights, the show as a whole is not surprising. But this lack of youthful spontaneity is also sort of the point—the show is presented largely from the point of view of a broken-down, older Keaton, who has mastered all the gags and ticks of his trade and can perform them at the drop of a hat, but still cannot escape the ups and downs and ups of life. What strikes me still, when I think about this show, is the image of Mr. Stewart in character thanking us for our time at the end, with that same stoic face, in acknowledgement of the fact that, however honed and crafted a piece of work may be, its final measure is its audience.
Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton is performed Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, May 25-June 30, 2012.
Sacred Fools Theater is located 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., Hollywood, CA 90004, off Melrose just west of Vermont.