Review: ‘Stoneface’ grows in scope, gains punch at Pasadena Playhouse


More than one legend gets their due in “Stoneface,” which is only as it should be. In a felicitous transfer from the Sacred Fools Theater Company, Vanessa Claire Stewart’s surreal smash about the rise and fall and rise of Buster Keaton moves to the Pasadena Playhouse -- and scores an absorbing coup.

Pitched somewhere between post-Brechtian epic, high-concept vaudeville and Samuel Beckett fever dream, Stewart’s script has not changed dramatically since 2012. It’s still a polyglot of well-researched biographical details, symbolist reenactments and unbridled kinetic imagination. Nor have the overall production values transformed, with most of the creative and acting factions from before once again on hand.

What is different, and what reveals “Stoneface” anew as a local benchmark, is the heightened perspective the shift to the Pasadena Playhouse affords the piece. Yes, some previously celebrated effects, not least the marvelous projections designed by Ben Rock and Anthony Backman (more, please), lose some razzle to their dazzle away from the tight Sacred Fools confines. Yet their relationship to the whole, like everything else, gains in scope, impact and emotional breathing room.


The historic venue’s milieu and larger contours inspire more creativity from director Jaime Robledo, his ace design team and a superb ensemble, centered by French Stewart, whose remarkable turn as Keaton has only deepened -- easily the performance of his career. Indeed, here is an ideal future “Virginia Woolf” George, “Godot” tramp and Malvolio. Merely to see the subtle shifts in straitjacketed posture and fathomless eyes during his introductory scene with nattering nurse Mae Scriven (Daisy Eagan, the sole new actor and an effective asset) is to perceive the fresh insights Stewart has located, to memorable effect.

The ever-amazing Joe Fria brings a compelling stillness to his customary mimetic gifts as Young Buster. Scott Leggett’s sensitive Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle once again grabs our hearts without excess. Jake Broder’s shtetl-accented Joseph Schenck and Pat Towne’s titanic Louis B. Mayer benefit enormously, stilling the house more than once.

Rena Strober brings nuanced duality to Norma Talmadge and Eleanor Keaton, beautifully countered by Tegan Ashton Cohan’s agile, rending Natalie Talmadge. Conor Duffy makes director Edward Sedgwick and poker-shark George Jessel seem two different players, Guy Picot’s spot-on Charlie Chaplin makes one hope for a corresponding sequel, and the live silent-movie piano accompaniment of composer Ryan Johnson remains invaluable.

Scenic designer Joel Daavid, lighting designer Jeremy Pivnick, costumer Jessica Olson and wig designer Jessica Mills rewardingly expand their original concepts, with sound designer Cricket S. Myers a happy addition to an unusually unified scheme.

Further rethinking on some elements, including extended usage of Rock and Backman’s interactive films, seems warranted. More than one extended pantomime could stand trims, the breathtaking “Steamboat Bill Jr.” lift that ends Act 1 screams for the original footage in tandem, and Act 2 still puddle-jumps a step or two en route to Keaton’s touching resurgence.

Yet these are quibbles. The show’s achievements and potential are self-evident. This intelligently quirky, droll and affecting meta-theatrical fantasia has already made its mark on L.A. theater, and how lucky we are to witness its progress.


“Stoneface,” Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 29. $54-$74. (626) 356-7529 or Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.