Buster Keaton is reborn at The Pasadena Playhouse

Stoneface runs at The Pasadena Playhouse through June 29.
Stoneface runs at The Pasadena Playhouse through June 29.

Stoneface does not, at least in this case, refer to the presidents carved on the face of Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota., although anyone born in the last 48 years might make that association.

No, it refers to  Buster Keaton, one of the leading lights of silent movie comedies. A master of physical comedy, famous for his serious deadpan expression (as well as his porkpie hats), he won the nickname "The Great Stoneface."

Equal parts actor and director, he ruled filmdom's comic roost for an entire decade during the 1920s. But even geniuses suffer the ravages of time and for the two generations born since his death in 1966, Keaton and his roller coaster career are largely unknown.

In his day, mostly the 1920s, Keaton was probably more well-known to movie-going audiences than Ben Stiller, Seth Rogan or Steve Carell. His masterpiece, The General, is still considered one of the greatest films of all times.  A prodigious worker, he leaned a bit too heavily on alcohol after his creativity was stifled by MGM and Louis B. Mayer in particular.

Yet so bright was Keaton's creative flame that he was able to make a comeback, though largely in guest roles and as a comedy consultant.

The story is condensed and told lovingly and faithfully in Stoneface, which runs through June 29 at The Pasadena Playhouse.  French Stewart plays Keaton with reverence and soul in the tragicomic play written by his wife, Vanessa Claire Stewart. Initially produced at the intimate Sacred Fools Theater Company, it won a second life and greater exposure at The Pasadena Playhouse, where it opened on June 8.

If the Stewarts' aim was to keep the memory of Keaton alive, they succeeded admirably. French Stewart gives an unforgettable portrayal of a guy who would literally break his bones for a laugh. In addition, theatergoers familiarize themselves with other stars of the era, including Keaton's good friend, Fatty Arbuckle (Scott Leggett), as well as Norma Talmadge (Rena Strober) and Charlie Chaplin (Guy Picot).

Although we get an honest retelling of  a remarkable life story and a first-rate primer into the silent movie era, we learn almost nothing about why Keaton became the comic maestro of his time, where he drew his inspiration and how he ultimately triumphed over adversity. The skeleton of a life story is there; the explanation of what made this man tick is not.

Likely as not, Keaton might have preferred it that way. Under the direction of Jaime Robledo, Keaton appears aloof and full of pride. He literally throws himself into his work, a price he willingly pays to achieve the standards he sets for himself.

A technical aspect of the play bears mention. On several occasions, characters literally walk into and out of a screen projecting a silent movie at the center of the stage. It's more than a neat gimmick, though. It imbues the play with a sense of historical time and reinforces the notion that there is something of themselves in the characters they play. And that's particularly the case for Keaton.

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