A couple of years ago, comic actor French Stewart received a birthday present from his wife, and it wasn't a necktie. Best known as the blithely dense space alien in the "3rd Rock from the Sun" sitcom, Stewart had trouble finding roles that fit his idiosyncratic comic gifts. Actress and writer Vanessa Claire Stewart wrote her husband a stage treatment of the life and career of one of the greatest comic geniuses of the silent movie era.
"Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton" opened in the fall of 2012 at the Sacred Fools Theatre Company in Los Angeles that ran 66 performances. It garnered rave critical notices and many drama award nominations. Stewart brings the show to the Pasadena Playhouse for the month of June, beginning Tuesday.
The show's greatest plaudits concern the clever staging, which references some of the most brilliant physical comedy committed to film. (Jackie Chan is a huge Keaton fan and has adopted the latter's beleaguered posture in his slam-bang action movies.) Critics and audiences have also been moved by Stewart's ability to evoke so many different emotions from a deadpan stare. He's accomplished the rare tribute that pays proper homage to his subject, yet showcases Stewart's own gifts.
Taking time out from concentrated rehearsals, French Stewart spoke about Keaton's gifts, and his own. "He had two special things," Stewart observes, "great physical ability and undeniable charm. We tried to make our show both physically and emotionally dangerous. His skill was not just breathtaking mechanical gags, but the ability to convey so many emotions."
Joseph Keaton Jr. (1895-1966) was born into a knockabout vaudeville family act, and at the age of 3 was being thrown around the stage like a sack of flour. The toddler bore an early tumble down a staircase with silent stoicism and escape artist Harry Houdini marveled at the child's ability to withstand a "buster."
In 1917 Keaton left a $200-a-week featured stage billing for a $40 job with Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle's film company. Keaton soon learned filmmaking from the ground up — beginning with tearing open a camera, learning how it worked, and reassembling it. Though their comic postures were different (Fatty was a bashful bear and Buster was a sad sack), they were both superb at physical comedy. Arbuckle became a silent star that rivaled Charlie Chaplin, only to lose his career in an early version of the fabricated Duke Lacrosse rape case. As Keaton's star rose, he quietly provided work for Arbuckle, then a broken man.
Keaton's comic persona was a downtrodden everyman, beset by plagues of technology and people. He walked through one hurricane of calamity after another, taking his lumps but never asking for pity. In one spectacular windstorm scene, Buster ambles down a street and stops, confused. The façade of an unfinished building behind him falls, its window opening just barely missing him.
He was one of the great early film auteurs (he wrote, directed and starred in his movies), but Keaton's life and career cratered as the studios took his autonomy and his marriage disintegrated. After decades of small parts and subsistence work, Keaton was discovered by post-war European cineastes and directors and feted overseas. A happy third marriage, well-written TV roles (like on "The Twilight Zone") and even cameos in the beach movies of the '60s gave Keaton a happy ending.
"His story is a hard one," Stewart says. "Arbuckle was like a brother to him, and his death was a great loss to Buster. There were times when Keaton was in a drunk tank or a sanitarium. He also did industrial films down in Mexico, and woke up married to his nurse. His first wife took his sons away and changed their names."
Stewart considers Keaton's inscrutable yet expressive face: "It was a blank screen that we project our own emotions onto. Chaplin's acting told you how to feel; Keaton let the audience decide and therefore be a part of the movie."
What: "Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton"
Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena
When: June 3 to 29
More info: (626) 792-8672, www.pasadenaplayhouse.org
KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.