Keaton Alive!

I didn’t like my stepfather much. I admired him for taking whatever modest talents he had as a writer and making a lifetime career out of it penning novels and teleplays, but by the time my mother married him he wasn’t much more than a bitter asshole drunk at the end of his life and pretty much the only things we had in common was arguing and Buster Keaton — who I idolized and my stepdad personally knew.

French Stewart and Joe Fria as the two Buster Keatons in "Stoneface." Photo credit: Shaela Cook

For any of you folk out there who think Buster Keaton must be Michael Keaton’s granddad, or perhaps the name doesn’t ring even the quietest of bells or you’ve only scene him in cameosĀ  in “Sunset Boulevard” or any of several 1960s goofy beach movies waaaaay late in his career, than google that shit pronto because man you are missing out on being aware of and entertained by one of the greatest film talents that ever was or will be. Period (pardon me if my idolization is showing).

You don’t have to convince any of the good people at Sacred Fools Theater in East Hollywood of that preceding statement. Whether they’re in the audience for “Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton,” or on the theater’s stage or behind its scenes, there is a certainly a respect and appreciation from the patrons for the man who was one of the greatest actors and performers of the silent film era — and pretty much an unabashed adoration of Keaton from those who created the powerful play and the gifted ensemble who have brought it to so wonderfully to life.

Directed by Jaime Robledo, and written by Vanessa Claire Stewart to star her husband French Stewart (most famous for his years on TVs “Third Rock from the Sun”) in a fully committed, riveting and heartfelt performance, she notes in the program that when the two first met he told her one of his life’s goals was to portray the great Buster Keaton, but that he thought it was too late for him to accomplish it. That set her on a path that began with researching the entertainer and ended up with “Stoneface.”

And what the play is to this Keaton adorer is a love song that is amazingly inventive. From the live piano accompaniment of Ryan Johnson throughout, to the mesmerizing opening and closing scenes in which the players onstage make magically seamless transitions onto a projected film, coupled to the wonderful staging, the explicit physicality, and the top notch talents of a cast of incredible actors in supporting roles, “Stoneface” not only celebrates Keaton as the indefatigable and innovative superstar he was, but also showcases the star as the flawed and fallen man he became, one kicked to the curb by an ungrateful Hollywood establishment.

I have to tap out a few more words about the cast, though I could tap out a lot more because they are ALL that GREAT. Standouts include Scott Leggett as Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle who provides poignancy to his portrayal that’s palpable. Tegan Ashton Cohan is a delectable dynamo as Keaton’s wife Natalie Talmadge, especially in so deftly handling the seriously funny physical comedy of a scene involving her getting a passed-out and sprawled-out Keaton off the floor and into bed. Jake Broder is outstanding in his more prominent role of pioneering studio executive Joseph Schenk, but also demonstrates marvelous comedic skills in a scene with him in a more minor role as a really bad acting costar to Keaton. Joe Fria brings great energy and edge to the young Buster. Pat Towne owns the Most Ferocious Moment of the Play award when his Louis B. Mayer rips Keaton a knew one for daring to challenge the studio king, Rena Strober gracefully gives us Eleanor Norris (Keaton’s last wife and true love and full-on redeeming angel), and Guy Picot imbues his Charlie Chaplin with such a legitimate weary pathos that makes you want to see more of him in the play.

And then there’s French Stewart’s Keaton. I get chills just thinking about it. Because what we have is not only an immensely talented and gifted actor who is at home either in tragic circumstance or in laugh-inducing pratfalls, but who at all times throughout his performance is paying reverent homage to his idol. It was Stewart’s long-held dream to play Keaton — not egotistically to “be” the film great, but rather to share him with us and give Keaton the recognition he deserves. What Stewart manages to do through his selfless performance is turn a spotlight on and demand Keaton be respected and remembered for the true genius he was. Bravo!

In case it’s unclear, “Stoneface” is a terrific show well worth seeing. But in the meantime if by chance you’re a Netflix subscriber and want to get your Buster on from back in his heyday, a variety of his classic films are available there for instant viewing, including “Go West,” “Battling Butler,” “Sherlock, Jr.,” “Seven Chances,” “College,” “The Navigator,” “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” and our “Our Hospitality.” Whatever way you discover him, be it how great he was onscreen or how much he struggled off it, do it.

WHAT: “Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton”
WHERE: Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope, Los Angeles (East Hollywood) 90004
WHEN: Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m., extended through July 15 August 5
COST: $25
CONTACTS: www.sacredfools.org; (310) 281-8337