Following on the heels of its successful production of Louis & Keeley: Live at the Sahara, Sacred Fools Company has mounted another theatrical biography, Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton. Written and directed by the same team responsible for Louis & Keeley,Vanessa Claire Stewart and Jaimie Robledo, respectively, the show stars French (“3rd Rock From the Sun”) Stewart as the iconic movie comic whose career was almost destroyed by alcoholism.
Stewart (husband of the playwright) is magnificent as Keaton, giving us all sides of the man -- his inspired clowning and creativity, innate dignity and decency, and tragic self-destructiveness. Above all, Keaton's courage is emphasized, his ability to fight against, and triumph over, the dark forces in his life.
Sacred Fools has backed up Stewart with lavish production values: the set, a studio backlot, also contains a screen on which are projected generous snippets from Keaton's film classics. The screen also allows the stage actors to slip behind it and become, in a twinkling, their celluloid equivalents.
The reality/fantasy theme is developed further in the text: Keaton has a younger self (played by Joe Fria) who constantly taunts the sadsack, drunken comic and tries to get him to shape up.
Also aiding Stewart's cause are such strong actors as Scott Leggett (Fatty Arbuckle), Tegan Ashton Cohan (Natalie Talmadge), Rena Strober (Norma Talmadge), Jake Broder (Joseph Schenk) and Guy Piccot (Charlie Chaplin). Pianist Ryan Johnson sits on stage, playing a period score that at times makes us believe we are watching a silent film, at other times a vaudeville show.
Stoneface’s one big weakness is a first act that’s too long by fifteen or twenty minutes, owing to repetitive scenes dealing (in mostly superficial ways) with Keaton's drinking. One can only hope that the skilled people who have put the show together will take a hard, objective look at its problems.