The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton

MAY 25 - AUG 26, 2012
Fridays & Saturdays @ 8pm
Thursdays @ 8pm added as of June 14
Tues & Weds @ 8pm added as of Aug. 14
Sunday Matinees @ 2pm

written by Vanessa Claire Stewart (Louis & Keely)
directed by Jaime Robledo (Watson)
produced by Brian W. Wallis

TICKETS: (310) 281-8337
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Chronicled through the lens of his own silent films, Stoneface recreates some of Buster Keaton's most memorable gags live on stage, capturing the legend of a bygone era and telling the tale of the redemption of one of Hollywood's greatest performers.

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"...highly imaginative... ingenious... I was entertained and impressed by Stoneface and wish it a long life." -LEONARD MALTIN

L.A. Times Critic's Choice: "In the eponymous central role, [French Stewart] displays a comical gravitas entirely fitting to his subject, combined with sheer physical virtuosity that is, quite simply, a revelation…" -F. Kathleen Foley, L.A. TIMES

L.A. Weekly GO: "…the most exciting new play to emerge from this theater since Louis & Keely, and one of the best new works of the city's theatrical season so far…" -Steven Leigh Morris, L.A. WEEKLY

"The intensely theatrical joys of "Stoneface" begin early…and continue through one clever scene after another…" -Travis Michael Holder, BACKSTAGE

Named one of the "Highlights of 2012 Theater" - "Vanessa Claire Stewart’s 'Stoneface' at Sacred Fools was a tour de force on several levels." -Don Shirley, L.A. STAGE TIMES

Named one of the "10 Most Memorable L.A. Theater Moments of 2012" - "...riveting..." -Steven Leigh Morris, L.A. WEEKLY

...and much more!

Read the full reviews

Hear Julio Martinez interview French Stewart & Vanessa Claire Stewart on KPFK's "Arts in Review"

Read Makeup Designer Amanda Rodil's article on designing makeup for the show!


Ovation Awards

Special Honor: Composition For a Play - Ryan Johnson
Costume Design (Intimate Theater) - Jessica Olson (nominated)

L.A. Drama Critics Circle Awards

WINNER - CGI/Video - Anthony Backman & Ben Rock
Nominated - Musical Score
 - Ryan Johnson

L.A. Weekly Awards

Production of the Year
 - Jaime Robledo
Ensemble - Jake Broder, Tegan Ashton Cohan, Donal Thoms-Cappello, Conor Duffy, Joe Fria, Scott Leggett, Erin Parks, French Stewart, Rena Strober, Pat Towne & Guy Picot
Production Design
Video/Projection Design
- Ben Rock & Anthony Backman
Leading Male Performance - French Stewart (nominated)
Playwriting - Vanessa Claire Stewart (nominated)
Lighting Design - Jeremy Pivnick (nominated)
Costume Design - Jessica Olson (nominated)
Choreography - Natasha Norman (nominated)

Teaser Trailer


French Stewart as Buster Keaton
Joe Fria as Young Buster
Donal Thoms-Cappello as Young Buster (extension performances)
Scott Leggett as Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle
Erin Parks as Mae Scriven
Tegan Ashton Cohan as Natalie Talmadge
Rena Strober as Eleanor Norris / Norma Talmadge
Jake Broder as Joseph Schenck
Conor Duffy as Edward Sedgwick / George Jessel
Pat Towne as Louis B. Mayer
Guy Picot as Charlie Chaplin


Joey Bybee as Young Buster
Mike Mahaffey as Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle
Bailee DesRocher as Mae Scriven
Laura Napoli as Natalie Talmadge
Courtney DeCosky as Eleanor Norris / Norma Talmadge
Anthony Backman as Joseph Schenck
Devon Michaels as Edward Sedgwick / George Jessel
Brendan Broms as Louis B. Mayer
Curt Bonnem as Charlie Chaplin


Associate Producers - French & Vanessa Stewart
Assistant Director - Jonas Oppenheim
Pianist / Musical Director - Ryan Johnson
Stage Manager - Heatherlynn Gonzalez
Dance Choreographer - Natasha Norman
Stunt / Fight Choreographer - Andrew Amani
Set Designer - Joel Daavid
Set Design Assistant - DeAnne Millais
Lighting Designer - Jeremy Pivnick
Sound Designer - Jaime Robledo
Costume Designer - Jessica Olson
Prop Designer - Heather Ho
Special Effects / Master Builder - James McCartney
Video / Projection Design - Ben Rock & Anthony Backman
Dialect Coach - Paul Wagar
Makeup Designer - Amanda Rodil
Marketing - Shelley Wenk & Jenelle Riley
Consulting Producer - Brandon Clark
Postcard Photo - Sye Williams
Graphic Design - Corey Klemow


Jump to Feature Articles

French Stewart & Joe Fria as Old and Young Buster
All photos by Shaela Cook unless otherwise credited


French Stewart a revelation as Buster Keaton in 'Stoneface'

From his turns in early Justin Tanner plays to his long-running role on the television sitcom, “3rd Rock from the Sun,” French Stewart has established himself as an immediately recognizable character actor, with “tired” and true tics -- knowing squint, twee hand gestures -- that have become synonymous with his persona.

Now forget any preconceptions you may have had about this actor. In “Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton,” in its world premiere at Sacred Fools, Stewart has left his bag of tricks behind the stage door. In the eponymous central role, he displays a comical gravitas entirely fitting to his subject, combined with sheer physical virtuosity that is, quite simply, a revelation.

The play was written especially for Stewart by his wife, Vanessa Claire Stewart (nee Smith), co-creator and star of “Louis and Keely Live at the Sahara,” which also premiered at Sacred Fools before going on to extended runs at larger venues -- as indeed, one suspects, could be the trajectory of this current production. Inspired collaborators, the playwright and her director Jaime Robledo imbue what could have been a standard bio-play with remarkable inventiveness and style.

Supported by a virtuosic design team, Robledo delivers a staging best described as surreally creative, complete with Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions and live silent film “clips,” with titles on an upstage screen. The performers, buoyed by music director Ryan Johnson's live period piano music, all possess the spot-on timing of seasoned vaudevillians.

The cast includes Scott Leggett in a heartbreaking turn as Keaton’s close friend, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, and Joe Fria as the young Keaton, who berates his older self for his collapse into alcoholism and penury. The tone of the play varies from the antic to the tragic, yet as Keaton wanders through the alcoholic wreckage of his life, the drollery never flags, nor does the poignancy.

--F. Kathleen Foley
© 2012 L.A. Times

Agile performance by French Stewart as Buster Keaton in "Stoneface" at Sacred Fools. Starkly conveyed the haunted isolation of alcoholism.

--Charles McNulty, L.A. Times Theater Critic
© 2012 Charles McNulty (via Twitter)

French Stewart as Buster Keaton

L.A. Weekly - GO!

Years of a Clown: Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton at Sacred Fools

There's clearly something irresistible to playwrights about the image of clowns falling to pieces. On local stages, one embodiment of that is Two Headed Dog's Clowntown City Limits, the Beckettian saga of four woefully marginal comedians living in a trailer while waiting for employment. One of the sources of tension expressed in the comedians' hysterically imbecilic repartee is the one clown who lands work on a kiddie show, which strikes a loathing resentment into the hearts of those left behind. These include one mentally deficient rodeo clown whose career hit the skids after he was gored in the head by a bull.

Wherein lies the humor of such a cruel joke? There but for the grace of God go we: a bunch of clowns, doing our best to please while seething with resentment at the humiliations of existence.

In 2009, Hollywood's Theatre of NOTE presented Patrick McGowan's play Film, which featured the marvelous Carl J. Johnson as the semi-retired Buster Keaton in 1964, having been all but trashed by MGM and now hired to perform in a 20-minute film by Samuel Beckett (Phil Ward), among Keaton's most enthusiastic fans. According to McGowan's play, and many other accounts, Keaton didn't much know or care who Beckett was, or why he mattered. But there was the image of the overweight, bedraggled Keaton, world-weary from the abuses of a career that included superstardom and a slow, humiliating, alcohol-propelled descent into professional exile.

A new play by Vanessa Claire Stewart, Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton, just opened at Sacred Fools Theater, also in Hollywood. As the title suggests, it is a very theatrical biography of Keaton, here performed by the author's husband, French Stewart. In 2008, Vanessa Claire Stewart (then named Vanessa Claire Smith) co-authored with Jake Broder a musical, which both actors performed at this same theater, based on the lives of Keely Smith and Louis Prima, Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara. (Broder performs in Stoneface with a meticulously crafted interpretation of producer Joseph Schenck.) Louis & Keely was a runaway hit, thanks not only to the top-tier performances by the co-stars but also to the ever-so-seductive presence of a swing band in the intimate theater, which turned the place into a kind of recording studio.

Four years later, the premiere of Stoneface marks the most exciting new play to emerge from this theater since Louis & Keely, and one of the best new works of the city's theatrical season so far. Some of the reasons for this are obvious — a standout ensemble representing MGM legends from the Golden Age: Fatty Arbuckle (Scott Leggett), Charlie Chaplin (Guy Picot), Louis B. Mayer (Pat Towne), George Jessel (Conor Duffy) and Norma Talmadge (Rena Strober) and her sister, Natalie (Tegan Ashton Cohan).

The other stroke of brilliance, and part of director Jaime Robledo's production design, includes Joel Daavid's deceptively simple set, suggesting the MGM back lot but incorporating a period-framed movie screen. If the live band formed much of the hypnosis in Louis & Keely, the equivalent element here is silent film, incorporated into the stage action (Ben Rock and Anthony Backman did the projection design) through a novel technique. Live actors, sauntering across the stage, disappear behind the screen, where they suddenly show up, pre-filmed, in black-and-white, in the same costumes as we'd just seen them live and in color. The technique gives new meaning to the phrase "technical wizardry" and supports the production's conceptual blending of life and art.

There are thematic echoes of Louis & Keely in Stoneface, having to do with issues of artistic legacy. In the former production, Louis Prima's obsession was fame, being recognized and remembered, juxtaposed against the professional ascent of and eventual eclipse by his prodigy, Keely Smith. The play opened and closed with Prima on a hospital gurney, at death's door, remembering his life in a fever dream.

In Stoneface, French Stewart's ravishing Keaton has eyelids that droop with pathos from the effects of alcohol abuse. He's just so, so tired, clinging to the frayed dignity of his former prestige, pitching film ideas humiliatingly to a studio that's moving so callously away from auteurs to specialists.

Among the play's issues is the dissolving of his films from age and acid. "Ashes to ashes," remarks one character.

The redemption story is really a simple scenario of Keaton's struggle with the bottle. Like Prima, he's haunted by the vision of his younger, nimbler self (Joe Fria). Young Keaton slaps his older self on the face, livid that his legacy is being destroyed by the elder's debauchery, hopeless work ethic and stubborn pride.

Many of the scenes are played sans dialogue, to musical director-pianist Ryan Johnson's accompaniment on a spinet: live-action silent film that doubles as physical theater. In this way, the performance is not only a biography but an homage to the genre in the very fibers of its presentation.

However, this play is the antithesis of Louis & Keely's despondent biography. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences steps in with a technique to preserve film, securing Keaton's legacy. And the sad-sack Keaton on the ash heap? Well, let's just say the wheels of capricious fortune and misfortune just keep turning.

What lingers are cinematic tableaux, archival clips of young Keaton standing absolutely unflummoxed as an entire house frame crashes down around him. Not even a twitch of his eyebrow. Or another, where he sits nonchalant on the drive shaft of a steam engine, as it carries him into a train yard.

The comedy of surviving catastrophe unfazed is the essence of such clowning. Flirting with death, then slipping away with a wink. It's easy to understand why Beckett so revered Keaton.

--Steven Leigh Morris
© 2012 L.A. Weekly

Joe Fria as Young Buster

Indiewire: Leonard Maltin's Movie Crazy

I’m wary of plays that deal with historic movie figures or incidents. If they’re overly glib, or play fast-and-loose with the facts, I lose patience pretty fast. I didn’t feel that way about Vanessa Claire Stewart’s Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton, which has been held over at Los Angeles’ Sacred Fools Theatre. If you’re in Los Angeles I encourage you to see it.

Stewart, who wrote and costarred as Keely Smith in the entertaining stage presentation Louis and Keely: Live at the Sahara, was inspired to learn about Buster Keaton after learning that actor French Stewart harbored a strong desire to play the great comedian. (They are now a happily married couple, perhaps inspired by Eleanor and Buster Keaton; at least, I’d like to think so.)

Her play is not literal or linear; it is a series of vignettes, or impressions, of Keaton’s troubled life and see-saw career, in which real life and reel life are seamlessly interwoven. She has taken occasional license with the timing of events, but the end result paints an honest, admiring portrait of the man and the artist.

Jaime Robledo’s staging, at the intimate Sacred Fools Theater, is highly imaginative, enabling his actors to walk in and out of silent-film footage and portray moments in Keaton’s life using ingenious props and set pieces. There are no weak links in the supporting cast, but I was especially taken with Tegan Ashton Cohan, who plays Buster’s first wife, Natalie Talmadge; she has a gift for physical comedy and performs an endearing musical number with Stewart.

As for the star, most of us know French Stewart best for his long run on the hilarious TV series 3rd Rock From the Sun. This role offers him a tour-de-force in which he embodies the stoic Keaton at the height of his career, and at his lowest point, strait-jacketed in a sanitarium. The whole show revolves around him and he is fully up to the task.

I don’t know if it’s an asset or a liability to know Keaton’s story before seeing the play. Someone completely unfamiliar with his life and times might not relate to the show as readily as a fan. I can only report that I was entertained and impressed by Stoneface and wish it a long life.

--Leonard Maltin
© 2012 Indiewire


Vanessa Claire Stewart's biographical play "Stoneface," subtitled "The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton," pays homage to one of Hollywood's enduring and inspiring comic geniuses, but it’s hardly a tribute to a life well spent. Perhaps a better subtitle might be "The Rise and Fall and Rise and Fall and Rise and Fall and Fall Even Further...." If the paparazzi had been as aggressive and the media as able to transmit information in the 1920s as they are today, Keaton could have rivaled Charlie Sheen or Lindsay Lohan in the watch-me-screw-up-my-life-before-your-very-eyes department. That alone is no fun to see.

Calling Keaton a sad clown might be akin to calling French Stewart and Joe Fria—who here portray the silent star at respectively older and younger stages in his life—simply good actors. Keaton was an alcoholic, miserably troubled, agonizingly self-destructive clown, whereas Stewart and Fria are world-class physical comedians and brilliant actors. There are many things about this presentation to recommend and to criticize, but these performers provide the heart of it, both when onstage alone or in those rare moments when the two sides of Keaton are depicted interacting. Whether it be miming each other's movements in a full-length mirror or carping at each other for ruining their mutual life, the effect is captivating.

It would be difficult to care about Keaton's decline without director Jaime Robledo's inventive staging, Andrew Amani's stunt choreography, an imaginative team of multimedia artists, and uniformly excellent performances. Of that inspiringly committed ensemble, Scott Leggett is a standout as Fatty Arbuckle, Pat Towne is a delightfully cartoon-blustery Louis B. Mayer, and Guy Picot appears to be channeling Charlie Chaplin, both his Little Tramp persona and as a soft-spoken, gap-toothed, white-haired older man sharing a dressing room with Keaton for a personal appearance as they good-naturedly analyze their roller-coaster careers.

The intensely theatrical joys of "Stoneface" begin early, with reels of Keaton's films rolling on Joel Daavid's exquisitely old Hollywood set as the audience shuffles in, and continue through one clever scene after another—played as though lifted from silent films themselves. Nearly continuous pratfalls and hilarious choreographed bits keep the play alive despite the downwardly spiraling topic of a wasted existence. If only "Stoneface" didn’t ultimately feel more like a Hollywood scandal–obsessed cable show featuring a string of unrelated tabloid-friendly events depicting the squandered life of a great artist.

--Travis Michael Holder
© 2012 Backstage

Scott Leggett as Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle


What an opening! In center stage, a door. Projected onto it, a silent film: figures in black and white, flickering, exaggerated gestures. And then, live actors step through the door and into that film! Just one of the clever devices that bring us not only into the life of the deadpan silent star Buster Keaton but into the world of silent film itself.

The silent comic, Buster Keaton, is represented by two characters: the young guy who comes out of a boisterous family act which develops his deadpan persona and his skill for intense physical comedy… so intense that at one time or another it breaks most of his bones. And as a separate character, the older Keaton, dragged down by a studio system which valued only big bucks over art. When Keaton tried to use his own concept and director’s eye for his own film and disappointed an audience’s familiar expectation, the film was considered a flop. He landed, an old washed out drunk in rehab tied into a straight jacket.

But slowly, taking smaller parts, helped by former rival Charlie Chaplin, Keaton climbed back up that slippery hard slope. His efforts were finally rewarded by a new audience who saw his brilliance.

Unlike the familiar sad old tale of Marilyn Monroe and Heath Ledger and the “star is born” syndrome where the broken down actor walks to his death into the ocean, this old washed out Buster rebuilt a life and turned his greatest artistic failure into an ultimate success that brought him honor…and we need that story!

And along with the fall and rise of a silent star is the secondary story of another star of silent films, the notorious Fatty Arbuckle, whose shocking history I still remember reading in the tabloids of the forties, the heinous sexual act that brought him into disgrace, revealed now as an innocent, victimized by the dirty press.

A big bravo to French Stewart (Third Rock from the Sun), who stars as Buster Keaton, along with Joe Fria as the younger Buster and Scott Leggett as Fatty Arbuckle… all supported by an excellent, talented ensemble.

The first long act is “the fall,” the second, shorter, the rise. And although this is a new play which might profit from a little eventual tightening and shortening of the first act and extending of the second, yet, as is, it’s a hysterically funny performance and watching the schtick, the physical comedy, the constant movement and shifting of scenery, the timing, the general madness which is the character of Buster Keaton, it’s a great evening of fun.

And, as important (to me: once a teacher, always a teacher,) it comes with the bonus of a valuable lesson. Ernest Hemingway said it: The Sun Also Rises. And to paraphrase a line from one of today’s popular films, a line important to all Hollywood dreamers: It always comes out all right in the end, and if it’s not all right, it’s not yet the end. And that was the life of Buster Keaton.

The device of the two Keatons is particularly effective, especially at the touching conclusion of the play. The poignant emotions that French Stewart managed to project -- albeit through that still, “stone” face -- brought this reviewer to tears.

Of interest is how the play was born: the love story of Buster Keaton, French Stewart, and a young playwright who brought us the long-running Louis and Keely Live at the Sahara, Vanessa Claire Stewart. When she met (and later married) French, she was impressed with his penchant for physical comedy. Reminded her of Buster Keaton. She eventually presented him this play as a birthday present.

I asked French: How on earth did they manage the pratfalls, the tumbles, the fights, the marvelous shtick, particularly the one (that evidently came from one of Keaton’s films) a number of overhead pulleys that each perform a table task, pulling a bottle of wine from a basket, pouring and then returning it to the basket. Exquisite timing. He said that they rehearsed and worked out the timing of the physical comedy even before the first reading of the script.

What a fun night of theater. A bravo, also, for Jaime Robledo who so skillfully directed the piece of such exquisite timing, and a thank you to Sacred Fools Theater Company, which never disappoints and brings to L.A. theater a boisterous energetic chance-taking revitalization.

--Clare Elfman
© 2012 Buzzine

Buster & Roscoe's Contraption

L.A. Theatre Review

Every now and then you come across a show that so thoroughly woos the audience right from the start that they can’t hold their applause until the end but clap right the way through. Stoneface is such a show. A semi-biographical account of the tribulations of silent film actor Buster Keaton (though you don’t need to know anything about him going in to enjoy the proceedings), Stoneface is a meticulously crafted Vaudeville machine that displays a startling mix of care and humility. Like its seasoned subject, the play works to earn every laugh it gets but never gets carried away by its own cleverness, actually thanking the audience for their time at the end and earning a standing ovation.

For a play that devotes an easy ten minutes to a romantic chase scene and another to a fantastically elaborate gag about lighting cigars and pouring drinks, Stoneface also displays great wisdom and heart. Comparisons to the film The Artist are inevitable. While that exploration of the final days of silent film dealt with change and loss of livelihood, Stoneface is perhaps more hopeful, musing on artistic integrity, on coping with change and human frailty, and on the value and permanence of art (and the people who make it!) as time goes on.

Playwright Vanessa Claire Stewart’s script is fairly linear despite its flashbacks and imaginary characters, tracking Keaton’s life from Vaudeville-kid beginnings, where he learned to keep a straight face at any cost to get the laugh, to marital issues and alcoholic decrepitude. It is easy to see that she wrote the piece specifically for French Stewart, who plays Keaton. The actor is a master of the titular ‘stone face’, stumbling and dancing his way through a mix of silent scenes and dialogue with a stoic expression that is so tragic that you can’t help but laugh.

The play starts with supertitles and character introductions for Mr. Stewart and the rest of the ensemble as they enter through the audience and go behind a screen, at which point they enter a black and white video world that is consistently used to elaborate on the action, but never encroaches upon it. Appropriately, about half of the play or every other scene, is silent except for a live piano score (played and musically directed by Ryan Johnson) that underpins the performances and proves that you can tell a story through movement and music every bit as effectively as through words. One of my favorite moments came in the second act during one such silent scene, when I looked over and saw that my entire row, including two young kids, were tapping their feet along to the jingle of the piano.

Stoneface plays with language in many interesting ways, from ongoing supertitles to a scene set in Mexico that played with Spanish, to a personal favorite in which we followed a flirtatious scene almost entirely done through whispers in which the piano played the intention of whatever was being said and the characters reacted accordingly. The physical inventiveness is always top-notch, playing with blatantly metaphorical environmental or physical barriers that must be overcome, from a bad telephone connection to a struggle through a storm. The conclusion of a scene almost always led to a burst of applause, and even when the intricate machinery of props floundered (which was rare) the audience laughed and clapped and supported the actors through the glitch.

I’m not sure who to credit with the construction of the stage, which reminded me of nothing so much as a giant medieval music box—its seems like prop designer Heather Ho, set designer Joel Daavid (and assistant DeAnne Millais), welder Zak Holman, projection designers Ben Rock and Anthony Backman, and special effects/master builder James McCartney all had a hand. Likewise, for the movement and staging it seems I have my choice of which artist to complement, from director Jamie Robledo (with assistant Jonas Oppenheim) to dance choreographer Natasha Norman to stunt/fight choreographer Andrew Amani. Jeremy Pivnick’s lighting and Jaime Robledo’s sound kept up with the whole apparatus nicely, and I haven’t even listed half of the production staff, which includes such positions as ‘wig upkeep’. Having such a large dedicated team is rare in the small theatre world, but this is a production that needs it and the results certainly paid off.

Likewise, I must confess that I can’t really pick out ‘exceptional performances’ among ensemble members because they all worked together so seamlessly as a team in a multitude of roles and positions. Again, they are a legion, and each time a new character entered I had to stop and ask myself if this was a new actor or just another disguise.

If I were to offer any substantive critique of Stoneface, it would be that in all the cleverness and planning of the show’s constant gags, a spark of spontaneity is lost and while each individual scene surprises and delights, the show as a whole is not surprising. But this lack of youthful spontaneity is also sort of the point—the show is presented largely from the point of view of a broken-down, older Keaton, who has mastered all the gags and ticks of his trade and can perform them at the drop of a hat, but still cannot escape the ups and downs and ups of life. What strikes me still, when I think about this show, is the image of Mr. Stewart in character thanking us for our time at the end, with that same stoic face, in acknowledgement of the fact that, however honed and crafted a piece of work may be, its final measure is its audience.

--Brian Sonia-Wallace
© 2012 L.A. Theatre Review

L.A. Stage Times

...A few blocks to the southeast of the Fringe area is Sacred Fools Theater, where Stoneface, the Vanessa Claire Stewart play starring French Stewart as Buster Keaton, deserves the many plaudits it has received. Masterfully directed by Jaime Robledo, it has the kind of technical polish that would be difficult to pull off at most Fringe venues. And its accomplished clowning elevates the clichéd notion of the sad clown into something quite wonderful.

--Don Shirley
© 2012 L.A. Stage Times

Guy Picot as Charlie Chaplin


Sacred Fools Theater Company, a 501c3 non-profit organization, run completely by ensemble artists of the theatre has a fabulous hit on their hands with their most recent production of Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton. This amazing production about the Vaudeville actor turned massive star of the silent screen, then later the early talkies with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, is truly one of the Hollywood's most prominent actors of all time. This man single handedly brought the idea of stone cold lack of expression as a form of comedic style to the forefront of the business to date. Buster Keaton, however, had some pretty serious demons he had to contend with. As most every truly excellent actor does, Buster, real name Joe Keaton, had to deal with a family that was truly a mess, leadership that rarely knew what they were doing, a public that put a persona on him that never actually existed, several failed marriages, failure to be a sound father to his children, and perhaps most solidly controlling, alcoholism. The production jumps back and forth during key periods of Buster's life telling the audience the story that needs to be told so that we (the audience) can understand it. It adds all the Vaudevillian comedic scenes that make it true to reality, as well as many of the heart breaking issues that help us to identify with this man as first and foremost a man. A phenomenal production from start to finish, this is a show worthy of note to the Ovation Committee, as well as those of my fellow directors and producers in the New York and London theater circuit.

French Stewart, who portrays Buster Keaton, is absolutely exquisite! This man brings to life a character that all too many have no recollection of, much less understanding. His hold, heart, and honor to the role shines out like a bright star in the night sky. I have not had the pleasure of seeing this man on stage before, but I can assure you that I will be looking for him again and again now. Joe Fria portrays a younger version of Buster Keaton who interacts with French, and helps the audience see that even a star like Buster Keaton dealt with his own regrets just the way we all do; excellent job all around! The remainder of the cast of this production all help to add to the splendor that is Stoneface. There is not a bad or lacking performance to be found. Written by Vanessa Claire Stewart and brilliantly directed by Jaime Robledo, this production offers some of the most ingenious and entertaining stunts, stage effects, and comedic scenarios I have seen on stage in a VERY long time. The cinema photography that is added to the production to bring it to a since of reality is beautifully done, which together earns this critics five star approval rating. This is a production that is not to be missed!

Sacred Fools Theatre Company... is a delightful theatrical space. The seating is comfortable, the stage is delightful, the foyer is small but accessible, the ticket booth and snack bar are well maintained and staffed professionally, the restrooms are clean and easily accessible, and the this handicap friendly environment has some truly polite and professional people greeting, seating, and meeting the needs of their guests. There is adjacent parking available for a nominal fee, and there is even security on site to ensure that your vehicle is protected. There is also street parking available... Located at 660 N. Heliotrope Drive in Hollywood, CA 90004, just off Melrose and just east of the 101 freeway, the location is convenient and easy to access. With group rates available, and base ticket prices at only $25.00 per person, this is a production that every serious theatre aficionado must encounter... This is truly a production not to be missed, so book your tickets NOW! Enjoy!

--Randall Gray
© 2012 Yahoo


Behind an Actor's Eyes

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

When's the last time you saw a silent movie?

You know, the piano score, the luscious black and white, the wonderfully melodramatic acting. And the convention that's so oddly shocking in our world of ever-present audio - the title card with dialogue. There's such a beautiful elegance to the silence - the mouths moving without making a sound. The guessing at what they are actually saying - and then, at least for me, the let down when you read what they actually said. But then there's the physical comedy of the greats - like Buster Keaton.

Playwright Vanessa Claire Stewart's new play at Sacred Fools is deeply indebted to silent films in ways that make it both as rich and as frustrating as its source.

Her title, "Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton," serves as an apt synopsis of this biographical journey. We begin with Buster as a kid on the Vaudeville circuit and ride the roller coaster of his fame, alcoholism, artistic comprise, and finally critical reincarnation.

The play, in both its structure and direction experiments with the very conventions of vaudeville and silent film. There are pantomime segments with projected title cards. There's a live piano accompaniment. There are scenes where the actors speak - 'talkies' if you will. There are sequences where the characters step into - and out of - film clips. There are chase scenes, doppelgangers and a half dozen acting styles. It's dizzyingly ambitious, if not always entirely successful.

At the play's heart is the promise, like any good biography, of getting a glimpse behind the scenes - to not just the details of a life but to its heart. What could be a more tantalizing subject than the inscrutable deadpan of Buster Keaton? What's going on behind those eyes? What isn't he saying? The script succeeds at drawing the outlines of Keaton's life but it gets so caught up in the facts that it only hints at its depth.

The play's most transcendent moments happen, maybe fittingly, in silence. There are homages to the physical comedy of Buster Keaton that capture not only the genius of the original films but also the spectacle of live theater.

What makes the play worth seeing is the witty and profound performance of French Stewart as Buster Keaton. Mr. Stewart is probably best known for the broad comedy of shows like 3rd Rock from the Sun. I'll admit, while I've giggled at his comedy in the past, I've never been moved by it.

In Stoneface, Mr. Stewart distinguishes himself as not only a physical comedian with the fluid grace of a dancer but also as an actor capable of capturing all the pathos of a shattered life with nothing more than a slow, silent head turn.

In the end, Stoneface succeeds in revealing the remarkable depths of an actor - but that actor isn't Buster Keaton. It's French Stewart.

--Anthony Byrnes
© 2012 KCRW

Pat Towne as Louis B. Mayer

Santa Monica Daily Press

Buster Keaton goes French

If you remember the TV sitcom "Third Rock from the Sun," you'll remember the "biggest idiot in the universe," Harry Solomon, the character portrayed by actor French Stewart.

Stewart's far removed from that idiot now that he's playing one of the greatest comedy icons of the silent film period, Buster Keaton. He stars in "Stoneface: The Rise And Fall And Rise of Buster Keaton," presented by Sacred Fools Theatre. It's the role of a lifetime, as Keaton is one of Stewart's idols (his wife wrote the script for him).

Creative sleight-of-hand is on display in this live-stage version of a black-and-white silent film world. While it's neither all-silent nor all black-and-white, it is a brilliant production.

...The physicality and footwork in this production are astounding: from the amazing replication of slapstick antics in chase scenes, replete with trampolines and slamming doors, to the terrific trick of live action on stage stepping into film action on screen; the faux biographical films; and a remarkable piece of Rube Goldberg wizardry in the "lazy" scene, where Keaton and pal Fatty Arbuckle drink, play cards, light cigars, all without moving from their chairs by pulling weighted ropes controlling the different contraptions that serve their needs.

--Sarah A. Spitz
© 2012 Santa Monica Daily Press

Blogcritics: Stage Mage

Clowns have always held a fascination for me. Perhaps it is because I grew up in the '50s when what passed as happy and serene covered a lot of pain and heartache. When sad clowns came into fashion I think it was because times had gotten so rotten that we needed a sad clown to show us not to take ourselves too seriously.

Then there is Buster Keaton, who was neither happy nor sad but was rather a blank upon which we could paint a smile or a frown. Keaton’s clown was daring and smart and made the best of his circumstances. Stoneface, by Vanessa Claire Stewart, gives us Keaton in all his complexity.

Stewart knows how to write a gripping story about a showbiz icon like Keaton. After all, she wrote the remarkable Louis and Keely that had such a huge success around town and is destined to end up in New York and win all sorts of awards. So it will be with Stoneface. She enlisted an actor whom she later married, French Stewart, who had gained fame on television in 3rd Rock From The Sun. Stewart was known for his comic skills and, in LA theatrical circles, for some acting in some zany stuff that was often dominated by his performance. He had always wanted to portray Keaton. His performance is brilliant but also revelatory, showing Keaton as a truly gifted physical comedian.

Director Jaime Robledo has come up with an ingenious way to tell Keaton’s story, which, as the title suggests, was a real roller coaster. The creative team doesn’t shy away from Keaton’s negative side; he was bossy, alcoholic, stubborn, and a womanizer.

Keaton was also an original who created something out of nothing, and so it is with this show. The set is bare and minimal but more than serves the purpose... his story is told as if it were a silent movie in which reality would often interject to ruin the gag...

Besides French Stewart, the rest of the cast is first rate. Scott Leggett makes a believable Fatty Arbuckle, while Guy Picot does a fine job playing Chaplin. Jake Broder, who had partnered with the playwright previously in Louis and Keely, makes a suitably tough movie producer. Joe Fria, who appears throughout the piece, haunting the elder Keaton as he self-destructs and slapping his face to remind him of the gift he has inside, plays Young Buster Keaton. Tegan Ashton Cohan is Keaton’s first wife Natalie Talmadge, who left him because of his drinking. Pat Towne is terrific as Louis B. Mayer, and Rena Strober does a great job with both Eleanor Norris and Norma Talmadge.

I recommend this show to everyone, especially those who have had to claw their way to a career in show business.

--Robert Machray
© 2012 Blogcritics

Tegan Ashton Cohan as Natalie Talmadge

StageScene L.A.


Imagine you’re writer-director Jaime Robledo, and your play Watson won you just about every award in the book... Then imagine you’re writer-performer Vanessa Claire Stewart, whose Louis and Keely Live at the Sahara and its holiday spin-off won you just about every award in the book... Now try to think of what to do for an encore.

The answer to this conundrum turns out to be for Robledo and Stewart to join forces in the creation of a show that not only showcases their prodigious talents and those of Stewart’s inimitable husband French (of 3rd Rock fame) but pays tribute to the genius that was silent screen legend Buster Keaton.

The result of this three-part collaboration is Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton, written by Vanessa, directed by Jaime, and starring French in the title role. A surreal, time-traveling bio-dramedy, Stoneface not only gives Keaton (Entertainment Weekly’s 7th-greatest director of all time and AFI’s 21st-greatest male star of all time) his due, it does so in the most inspired and entertaining of ways.

The biographical details of Buster’s life are all there, though not necessarily in chronological order.

We watch a silent movie recreation of Keaton’s early days in vaudeville, where a childhood fall earned him the nickname Buster for taking a “buster” of a spill and coming up smiling, upon which, discovering that he got fewer laughs when laughing at himself, Buster began adopting his trademark “Stoneface.”

...Stoneface doesn’t sugar-coat Buster’s battle with the bottle, though Robledo and the Stewarts do mine the comic possibilities of his marriage to his nurse Mae Scriven (Erin Parks), whom he wed during an alcoholic blackout. Still, it wasn’t until his marriage to wife number three, Eleanor Norris (Rena Strober, who doubles as Norma Talmadge) that the onetime superstar was able to begin salvaging his nearly defunct career.

Robledo and the Stewarts take a Felliniesque approach to Buster’s life, even going to far as to have not one but two Busters, one young and promising, the other older though not necessarily wiser, a fact made clear when young Buster (Joe Fria) gives his older self the best “Snap out of it!” slap since Cher landed one on Nicolas Cage in Moonstruck (and not a fake “stage slap” either).

About half of Stoneface’s scenes are silent and supertitled with silent movie-style title cards projected above the stage, a device also used to set scenes and to reveal biographical information about Buster.

Even scenes with spoken dialog are given a silent-movie air, an effect enhanced by the production’s running soundtrack, an atmospheric original score performed live on the upright piano by its composer, musical director Ryan Johnson.

...French Stewart is in a word superb, abandoning the quirky, madcap, slapstick persona that won him legions of fans during his six seasons as 3rd Rock’s Harry The Alien the better to vanish inside Buster Keaton’s deadpan exterior, his oh-so expressive eyes revealing a rainbow of emotions.

Fria is marvelous too in his own younger version of Buster, as is Leggett as Fatty, giving us both the brilliant comedian and the tragic victim of Hollywood’s morality police. Parks’ dryly humorous Mae, Cohan’s piquant Natalie, Strober’s warm Eleanor (in addition to her fine bit as movie star Norma), Broder’s dynamic Schenk, Conor Duffy’s tiptop dual turn as director Edward Sedgwick and comedian George Jessel, Towne’s imperious Louis B. Mayer, and Picot’s wise, generous Chaplin are all finely drawn characterizations.

Physically, the production owes much to its talented team of designers. Joel Daavid’s set recalls images we’ve seen of old silent movie lots, a design meticulously dressed by prop designer Heather Ho and exquisitely lit by Jeremy Pivnick in nostalgic, amber hues. The terrific design package is completed by sound designer Robledo, dance choreographer Natasha Norman, stunt/fight choreographer Andrew Amani, fight captain Mike Mahaffey, special effects designer/master builder James McCartney, and makeup designer Amanda Rodil, alongside another dozen and a half crew members.

Working behind the scenes are producer Brian W. Wallis, associate producers French and Vanessa Stewart, consulting producer Brandon Clark, assistant director Jonas Oppenheim, stage manager Heatherlynn Gonzalez, and assistant stage manager Suze Campagna.

Though a significant number of Los Angeles World Premieres seem to vanish in the mists of memory once the final curtain has fallen, my guess is that Stoneface will have a considerable life post-Sacred Fools. Still, it’s hard to imagine it being nearly as perfectly staged without Robledo and the Stewarts encoring their work. This may be one regional theater production that will have to come as a package deal.

--Steven Stanley
© 2012 StageScene L.A.

Conor Duffy as Edward Sedgwick

Broadway World (two reviews)

Review by Ellen Dostal:

Yes, I was blown away by Sacred Fools’ production of Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton and it has raced to the top of my list of most recommended theatrical productions to see this summer...

While Stoneface does take the audience through the tragic ups and downs of Buster Keaton’s career, at its core its story reflects a deeper truth about the power of love to heal. In many ways it is a love letter - to the brilliance of his films like The General, to the redemptive love between Keaton and his third wife Eleanor Norris (Rena Strober), and even to the legion of fans that celebrate his legacy today...

The cast is an exceptionally talented group of actors. In addition to those mentioned previously, Erin Parks plays Mae Scriven, the nurse Keaton married while in an alcoholic blackout, Conor Duffy does a double turn as Edward Sedgwick and George Jessel, and Jake Broder gives a fascinating portrayal of producer Joseph Schenk.

This is one night at the theater you don't want to miss.

Review by Don Grigware:

Vanessa Claire Stewart's world premiere homage to silent screen legend Buster Keaton Stoneface succeeds on many levels, first and foremost of which is its brilliant recreation of silent movies by cast and crew. The execution of gags and physical comedy is tough to pull off; here its click by click precision timing almost defies description. Take a look below at the contraption that opens Act II. Pushing a few pulleys back and forth has never produced quite the picnic that this one does with Keaton (French Stewart) and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle (Scott Legett) controlling the moves in a hit or miss game that symbolizes their entire careers. Now onstage at the Sacred Fools Theatre, Stoneface is a beautifully written and performed look at old Hollywood and at a few geniuses who dared to buck the system in order to make a difference.

Director Jaime Robledo and choreographers Andrew Amani for stunts & fights and Natasha Norman for dance make every precious moment count as they move their actors about a bare stage that serves as a movie set.

...This is one of the best roles ever for French Stewart who relishes every second onstage. Keaton's physical dexterity and stoneface delivery - taught to him from childhood while performing in home movies - dominate Stewart's portrayal. He makes Keaton's deep sadness due to his checkered career and loss of marriage and fatherhood drive the performance forward in a completely natural way. I never caught him acting. Remarkable work! Also wonderful are Leggett as Roscoe, Cohan as Talmadge and Fria as young Keaton/son James, and all others in this cohesive ensemble.

Ben Rock and Anthony Backman are to be lauded for their video/projection design, which so enhances the piece especially at the beginning and end. Vanessa Claire Stewart's outstanding script, Robledo's meticulous direction and French Stewart's consummate performance make Stoneface a must see. This Hollywood story is doubly worthy of your attention - I know I said it before but I must repeat it - because of the production's entire execution, which pulls you in to experience and feel the making of silent pictures.

© 2012 Broadway World

Rena Strober as Eleanor Norris

The Cinementals

Buster Keaton was the greatest physical comedian to ever walk the earth. Keaton’s athletic prowess and fearless creativity is dazzling. Defying the laws of gravity time and time again, Keaton’s films are magical in that we cannot quite believe what we are seeing. Even in this jaded 21st century of ours, our senses dulled beyond recognition thanks to CGI, watching Keaton front-flip down a hillside, or narrowly escape an oncoming train, still elicits gasps of disbelief. There was never anyone like him, nor will there ever be again.

Adding to the mix of his genius was an off-screen life that was every bit as problematic as his most daring stunts, and the notion of effectively (forget accurately) portraying that life—whether on screen or on stage—is, well, tricky at best. Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton, a new stage production from The Sacred Fools theater company in Los Angeles pulls off the impossible. Mostly.

French Stewart, the actor perhaps best known for his work on the sitcom 3rd Rock From the Sun might not be the first person you’d think of to portray Buster Keaton, but then again, is there anyone who immediately jumps to mind to take on someone as inimitable as Keaton? Stewart is a seasoned stage vet, and has been an active presence in local Los Angeles theater for a number of years, and happens to be a major Buster Keaton fan. It is in fact his wife, playwright Vanessa Claire-Stewart, who wrote this account of Keaton’s troubled life and career expressly for him. At 48, Stewart manages a surprising level of physicality, and he handles the role with wit, strength and dignity.

Beginning with a rock-bottom Keaton and his self-admitted stay in a sanitarium, and ending with his marriage to the love of his life, Eleanor, and the re-discovery of his films in the 1960s, Stoneface is told through a non-linear series of vignettes. The stage direction is highly creative, incorporating silent film-style gags and digital film projection. We bounce from his close friendship with Arbuckle, to his desperate film work in Mexico, to his Educational short subjects, to MGM, to Chaplin, and back to the sanitarium again. This all sounds highly disjointed, but it manages not to feel like it because, in fact, it isn’t. Claire-Stewart’s intimate knowledge and reverence for the subject matter threads these vignettes together into a cohesive, solid portrait. “For our purposes,” says Claire-Stewart, “we are sticking to a lot of the legends that Mr. Keaton would have wanted told, but always with an undercurrent of truth, while maintaining our universal Hollywood theme that while film stock may rot, family and friendship lives on past any story told by William Randolph Hearst.”

She has crafted a piece that is accessible to those unacquainted with silent film, but deeply satisfying to even the most serious Keaton fans by cleverly marrying together moments from Keaton’s films with the narrative. His loveless, studio-backed marriage to Natalie Talmadge is addressed in a send-up of a Keystone chase; their crumbling relationship takes its queue from the musical number in FREE AND EASY; his love for Eleanor is entirely conveyed by projected inter-titles taken directly from SEVEN CHANCES; and Keaton’s decent into alcoholism is rendered by a smart role-reversal from the famous drunk scene in SPITE MARRIAGE.

If I do have one reservation, it’s that Claire-Stewart does spend the majority of time in the valleys of Keaton’s life than the peaks—it’s more the fall and fall and rise of Buster Keaton. And, since we do spend so much time with Keaton on the bottom, the play feels a bit abrupt in its sudden ‘and they all lived happily ever after’ ending.

But then again, in the end, he did.

An all around stellar production with a commanding, passionate lead performance from Stewart, make this show a must-see for film fans.

--Carley Johnson
© 2012 The Cinementals

Erin Parks as Mae Scriven

ArtsBeatLA (two reviews)

Review by Pauline Adamek:

Be advised – Vanessa Claire Stewart’s wonderful play about Buster Keaton is not a barrel of laughs. Dealing largely with the latter, dismal years of the legendary silent film comedy star’s career and failed marriages (two), many of the dramatic scenes are truly heartbreaking. That’s thanks to superbly subtle and emotional performances from both French Stewart and Joe Fria as Buster Keaton (older and younger, respectively).

Yet in Stewart’s inspired dramedy there are definitely laughs to be had, especially in the astonishingly accomplished sequences of silent comedy bits – one-take gags and elaborate physical routines taken straight from some of Keaton’s most famous silent pictures. These segments are faithfully and expertly reproduced live on stage by this first-rate cast, beautifully directed by Jaime Robledo...

In the opening scene of Stewart’s play, Keaton (French Stewart) is trussed up in a straightjacket, drying out in a sanatorium. French Stewart plays the comedy legend with a sour and pained expression on his famous ‘stone’ face. That’s when we realize this play is not going to be all fun and pratfalls.

Not only is Vanessa Claire Stewart’s play a creative and hard-hitting tribute to a silver screen legend, but it features superbly nuanced and physical performances from the entire, hardworking cast. In addition to scene-stealing turns from the two actors portraying Keaton, others who shine include Scott Leggett as a wonderfully compassionate friend Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Tegan Ashton Cohan – cute, sexy and just brilliant as one of Keaton’s wives Natalie. A comedic sequence where she, a petite woman, tries to get a drunken Keaton into bed is a laugh riot. Another scene has Cohan and French Stewart duetting on a risqué song, wiggling her pert little behind with each piano chord emphasis. It’s delightfully funny and so cute!

Of note is pianist and musical director Ryan Johnson’s marvelous live performance throughout of the jingly piano score we associate with silent movies.

Once again Jaime Robledo’s inventive staging and confident direction is on display, especially in the numerous silent comedy bits as well as his direction of the projected film segments.

Review by Lucy Griffin:

I had quite the time Friday night basking in the theater glow of unique and inspiringly innovative, Jaime Robledo’s intricate direction paired with Vanessa Claire Stewart’s writing (charming as it is clever). From the perfect costume styling by Jessica Olson to the daring moves of Andrew Amani. From the joyful celebration of Natasha Norman’s choreography to the stunning cast this show is a well-oiled machine.

It was an evening of mostly tears for me along with some hearty laughs. Busting with the seamless magic of theater. Both acts began with scenes fit to astonish like the effects of a circus. Only this play focused on perhaps the saddest most gifted clown of our time, Buster Keaton, played by the stoic and beautiful French Stewart who near but broke my heart. Joe Fria is tender and graceful playing a shadow of what Buster used to be, acting occasionally as his conscience. Scott Leggett brings an engaging comedic twist to his touching performance of the mostly sad life of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Tegan Ashton Cohan playing Natalie Talmadge is lithe and beautiful, each movement of her body a studied perfection of the times. Joel Daavid’s set as usual is a functioning breathing member of the ensemble. Flawless lighting by Jeremy Pivnick and an incredible live score by the vital Ryan Johnson, making each scene seem risky and yet perfectly timed.

What I find especially exciting about Jaime Robledo is that he is just getting started. The same goes for the lovely Vanessa Claire Stewart. Both young in their careers yet both with résumés boasting magnificent feats (Robledo’s Saturn Award winning Watson and Stewart’s Broadway bound Louis and Keely) LA theatre is lucky to house such staggering talent.

What a way to honor Keaton and bring his story to life. Bravo to cast and crew on this moving labor of love. Here’s to a successful run!

© 2012 ArtsBeatLA

Scott Leggett as Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle

Hollywood Progressive

Beneath the Great Stone Face

In 1976 I was on the JFK to LAX leg of my first flight to Tahiti and noticed Diane Keaton sitting in first class. I passed a note to her through what was then called a “stewardess” and Diane joined me, a recent Hunter College film school grad, for a chat. I told Ms. Keaton that her last name was well deserved, because she had a comedic talent in the tradition of Buster Keaton, and she was touched.

Like Woody Allen, Diane Keaton’s frequent onscreen collaborator, Buster Keaton often had to endure being taken to task by colleagues and lapsed fans, who preferred his earlier, “funnier” films. Part of the Sacred Fools Theater Company’s Stoneface, The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton details Buster’s (French Stewart) epic clashes with studio suits who actually believed they knew funny business better than those silent film clowns who had taught the flickers how to laugh. In particular, movie mogul Louis B. Mayer (Pat Towne) is depicted as a tinpot Tinseltown despot. (Similarly, in the 2010 ICT-mounted musical When Garbo Talks!, Greta Garbo grappled with that MGM top banana. Seems like L.B. was the original Oscar Meyer Weenie.)

...The bard eschews a typical narrative story structure in favor of a more creative, innovative aesthetic that imaginatively incorporates silent cinema’s techniques and conventions. In particular, Stoneface is full of the sight gags and physical comedy that was the hallmark of Hollywood humor prior to the advent of the talkies, as Ms. Stewart matches form with content. Before the movies learned how to talk the medium primarily communicated through a visual language, although one augmented by title cards, piano players or even full orchestras, playing scores before live audiences in darkened theatres to accompany those images shimmering onscreen. In keeping with tradition, musical director Ryan Johnson tickles the ivories throughout Stoneface.

...Best of all is the inventive wave Stoneface uses an onstage movie screen. Again, I won’t spoil this superb sight gag for you, but it is an inspired use of live action and screen imagery that seems derived from my personal favorite Keaton flick, 1924’s brilliant Sherlock Jr., which film historian David Thomson calls “the most philosophically eloquent of silent comedies.”

...Whereas the first act of Stoneface seems primarily designed for the intellect (albeit with heaps of laughs plus necessary exposition along the way), Act II goes as unerringly straight to the heart as those pies so often tossed by silent screen comedians hit hapless faces. The pies that hit that Great Stone Face came in the form of two wrecked marriages, bad business decisions, his fall from box office grace as the talkies assailed his career and Buster’s own inner demons. Nevertheless, as befits the comic known for his stoic visage, Keaton confronts life’s vicissitudes and carries on.

According to this bio-play Buster’s old rival, Charlie Chaplin, helped Keaton turn his flailing, failing career around, offering him a role in 1952’s Limelight, that lovely rumination on aging entertainers losing their audiences. Ever the film historian I listened attentively for the immortal line, [ATTENTION! SPOILER ALERT!] delivered in the dressing room as Charlie and Keaton, the music hall comedians, made themselves up for another performance. Heartbreakingly, the over the hill Keaton turns to his former competitor-turned-benefactor, and Ms. Stewart, who has done her homework and has an attentive ear, accurately quotes Buster’s character, Calvero’s partner: “I never thought it would come to this.”

(Parenthetically, there is an ongoing Charlie-vs.-Buster debate among film buffs as to who was the greater artist. For what it’s worth, here’s my two cents’ worth: The unsurpassed cinematic pictorial panache of Sherlock Jr. demonstrates that Buster had a superior sense of film form. But whereas Keaton’s deadpan demeanor was a comment on THE HUMAN CONDITION and how to sally forth, despite the slings and arrows (and pies!) life hurls at you, Chaplin commented on HUMANITY. Buster’s riding near the wheels of a train in 1926’s The General is a clever sight gag, but the Little Tramp’s being swallowed up by the factory assembly line in Chaplin’s 1936 masterpiece Modern Times is nothing less than a visualization of Marx’s theory of the alienation of labor in capitalist society. Keaton always wanted to get the girl — and so did Chaplin, but in 1940’s The Great Dictator he also wanted to save the Jews and the rest of the world from fascism. Keaton’s artistry never rose to the heights of Chaplin’s humanistic vision, which is probably why Charlie fought far more successfully to maintain his independence: Because he had that much more to say.)

Meanwhile, back at the review:

As the mature Buster, French Stewart delivers a tour-de-force performance. (Joe Fria plays Keaton as a younger man, and the two thesps’ onstage schizophrenic conflicts are harrowing visualizations of a conflicted personality at war with itself.) The former co-star of Watson and the NBC sitcom Third Rock From the Sun is a superb physical comedian. From his athletic prowess to his twitches (watch his fingers during the show), Mr. Stewart captures his subject’s energetic kinetic persona. But more importantly, this actor goes beneath the Great Stone Face to show what made Buster Keaton tick. Chaplin may have — as the song Charlie composed put it — smiled while his heart was breaking, but with Buster’s impassive punim, he concealed his hurt. The play suggests that Keaton was an abused child who learned to hide his pain from the world, but finally learns to accept and express his own inner emotions.

...With so little in the way of finances and pricey production values in this 66 or so seat theatre, Sacred Fools has given us so much, proving that imagination trumps big budgets. Kudos to prop designer Heather Ho, special effects/master builder James McCartney and scenic designer Joel Daavid, as well as to director Jaime Robledo, who does yeoman’s work overseeing the crew and an ensemble cast.

A 2010 Chaplin bio-play that premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse is now Broadway bound, and especially considering the smash success of 2011’s silent cinema-oriented films, Oscar winner The Artist and Hugo, Stoneface might very well end up on the Great White Way — and on the silver screen. With Buster Keaton, Sacred Fools — one of L.A.’s hottest theatre companies — treads on hallowed Hollywood ground, and have found one of their own, a consecrated clown who richly deserves yet another comeback.

--Ed Rampell
© 2012 Hollywood Progressive

L.A. Theater Examiner

Keaton doesn't speak, not even French

If you’re pining for perfect pratfalls, you’ve got to see Stoneface because its star, French Stewart, has them down prat.

Stewart, best known for his six seasons as the alien Communicator in TV’s 3rd Rock from the Sun, displays a breathtaking physicality as he portrays comedy icon Buster Keaton in a role custom-tailored for him by his wife, playwright Vanessa Claire Stewart...

Stewart reprises many of Keaton’s famous shticks, throwing himself around the stage in a bone-breaking display of perfectly timed comedy and performing ingenious stunts with ladders and trampolines. The entire production, in fact, is brilliant in its simulation of silent-era camerawork, as the players chase each other with mincing, herky-jerky movements around the stage.

...They are accompanied by the bouncy silent-era piano-playing of Ryan Johnson and the baroquely lettered title cards that provide some of the dialogue and exposition...

Director Jaime Robledo has taken full advantage of his 10-member cast, using them to expeditiously move the furniture around Joel Daavid’s consistently innovative set design...

Although Keaton rejected the introduction of “talking movies,” (“Nobody wants to see a bunch of people talking their heads off,” he says), Stewart does augment his silent performance with some interesting speech. What’s surprising is the low, Shakespearean tone in which he speaks---exactly as stentorian as you would expect Keaton to sound in real life.

A final satisfying note: in 1952, when the legendary Chaplin engages him in a comeback role after many years in theatrical limbo, Keaton delivers a moving thanks: “I’m beyond grateful that you would work with an amateur like me,” he says. To which Chaplin responds, “We don’t live long enough to be anything else.”

...Call (310) 281-8337 or visit for tickets.

And in case you didn’t get my message: I heartily suggest that you do!

--Cynthia Citron
© 2012 Examiner

RLn Curtain Call

Last year Sacred Fools Theater in Hollywood gave one of the best performances of the year with Watson: The Last Adventure of the World’s Greatest Detective, reviewed here and voted one of L.A.’s best by us and several other newspapers.

This year, they have reunited one of that production’s stars, French Stewart, with Watson’s director Jaime Robledo for Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton, playing through June 30, and it is sure to be on the “Best” lists this year. Stewart plays Keaton in a role written for him by Vanessa Claire Stewart, who co-wrote Louis and Keely: Live at the Sahara for them (and who recently married Stewart, incidentally,) and he proves himself a master of Keaton-style slapstick. Equally important is the depth he brings to Keaton the workaholic and alcoholic who suffered more behind the camera than he ever did in front of it.

...This is a production of spectacular dimension that recreates many of Buster’s great comic moments, from a scene shared with Roscoe “Fatty”Arbuckle (Scott Leggett) where the two eat a meal entirely by remote control, to a boxing match where the ring appears magically, to a chase that involves trampolines on stage. The production values are incredible, from a barrel-house pianist (Music Director Ryan Johnson) who plays along with the silent sequences to a number of film interludes created for the play where the characters actually step into and out of the projections with ease. The cast has to have perfect timing to make it all work.

French Stewart is remarkable as the man who never lets the audience see his emotions. (He learned that trick early on in vaudeville from his parents.) But equally effective is Joe Fria, who plays the younger Buster to French’s older Buster, sometimes at the same time, in a mirror and even face to face. Leggett’s Arbuckle can be hilariously funny, but also touching as the comic banned by Hollywood for a crime he didn’t commit. Joseph Schenk, the man who made Buster a star and then lost his contract to Mayer in a poker game, is the likeable Jake Broder,and Louis B. Mayer is the sleazy Pat Towne.

Tegan Ashton Cohan is Natalie Talmadge, Keaton’s first wife, and Erin Parks is the second Mrs. Keaton. Mae Scriven, who engages is some very funny athletics as she tries to get Buster into bed while he in unconsciously drunk.

The cast is ready for anything in this brilliant production. When Buster and Mae are fighting, his tearaway pants didn’t quite work as planned and the two ad-libbed a screamingly funny scene as the managed to get them loose. Arbuckle and Keaton, working with a bottle on a string as part of a comedy routine, managed quite well,taking a few extra drinks before getting things to work right.

You’ll love everything about this play, from the surprise ending of the first act (we won’t give it away) to the final fade-out... And Sacred Fools in a a great neighborhood with a fabulous cafe or two, an intriguing bar and a book-store just across the street. Be warned: there have been six performances to date and all have been sell-outs, so call your reservations in soon. And listen and you’ll learn how to make the perfect pie for pie-fights. It’s a piece of information you may some-day need.

--John Farrell
© 2012 Random Lengths News

Blogging Los Angeles

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.

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 cameos 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. 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 does through his performance is turn a spotlight on and demand Keaton be respected and remembered for the true genius he was, which is genius in and of itself. 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 how him, be it how great he was onscreen or how fragile he became off it, do it.

--Will Campbell
© 2012 Blogging Los Angeles

Feature Articles


Playing My Idol Buster Keaton is the Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Done
by French Stewart

If I were going to make a film about Buster Keaton, I would cast Jackie Chan. I sincerely mean that. In terms of physical ability and comedic chops, he is the closest thing we have to Keaton. But, invariably, any attempt to mold Asian superstar to Caucasian comedy icon would be racially inelegant and open a can of worms that would divert the conversation from well-intended art to raw politics. Neither of these gentlemen deserves this.

So I’m playing him. I’m playing Buster Keaton.

There is no pretense here. I’m not Keaton. I’m not Jackie Chan. I realize this. I’m a fan. A lifelong fan. And my wife (Vanessa Claire Stewart) was kind enough to write me a love letter to my hero.

Why Keaton? Because, even in the infancy of film, he had the ability to funnel hardship into entertainment and physically blow your mind along the way. He turned lemons to lemonade with a dose of Air Jordan. What’s not to love?

I have always wanted to play some version of him. My wife is a beautiful writer. With Jake Broder, she wrote “Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara,” which originated at The Sacred Fools, went on to a mega-run at The Geffen, and now has its sights on Broadway. She always asked me why I wasn’t attempting this. She “Nike’d” me with “just do it.”

But I couldn’t find the story. Keaton was so interesting from cradle to grave that I couldn’t decide where to place my focus. Plus, as I’m pushing fifty, I didn’t want to try to ape his physical prowess with my old man moves. That could prove theatrically stinky. And I didn’t want to stink my idol. I didn’t want to stink up Buster Keaton.

Her answer? “Anyone can be drunk in Mexico. Play the middle part.”

On February 20th, 2011, I received the best birthday present of my life when Vanessa dropped “Stoneface” in my lap. Unbeknownst to me, she had been quietly chipping away on a script. Evidently she loves me. During the next hour she watched me read it. And as I finished the last page, I was forced to collect my jaw from the floor. I just loved it. It paid tribute to the artist, without shying away from the truth of him. It was exactly what I wanted. And then we went to Hooters. It was, after all, my birthday.

The problem? Now I had to do it!

The minute it was announced that I was playing Buster Keaton, I was rained on by fellow fans who, like me, had felt let down by former incarnations. Nobody wanted another sad drunk story. I know I didn’t. I wanted it all – the good, the bad, the art, the redemption, the truth. Well, “mostly” the truth. This story is told through his distorted lens so we’ve taken the liberty to bend reality (as well as classic bits) while hopefully being true to the man.

But, hey, if you want a mimic go to Vegas. If you want a tribute show go to Branson. I’m not a ventriloquist!

Our first call was to director Jaime Robledo. I had just worked with him on “Watson” and knew him to be a visual master and great handler of details. Plus, I just really like his mind. We then locked down two essential cast mates, both from “Watson.” As Buster in his prime, we approached Joe Fria, a Keaton expert and brilliant actor. We then asked Scott Leggett to play Roscoe Arbuckle. (Scott is super smart and just always brings the goods). Next stop? Andrew Amani (stunts extraordinaire). From that point on, the pieces fell like dominoes. We attached a rock star cast, rock star understudies, a rock star design team, and a rock star crew. With a show this physical and complicated, you really need a deep bench.

People have come out of the woodwork to help us. Our producer, Brian Wallis, is killing the details. Heatherlynn Gonzalez is stage managing the crap out of it. Actors like Pat Towne, Jake Broder, and Tegan Ashton Cohan regularly throw me great advice, and Roger Lee Harrison, as well as Vanessa’s parents, have contributed much needed financial support. It truly goes on and on and on. I wish I had time to mention everyone. I really do.

It is truly the hardest thing I have ever done. When I wake up in the morning, my knees sound like someone’s making popcorn. The details are endless and the physical toll hard. To make ends meet, I’m working on a zombie movie for Sci-Fi network. During the day, I chop off zombie arms with an axe or let a monkey stick his finger in my ear. Last weekend, I ran butt naked through the streets of Woodland Hills to achieve a paycheck in a knucklehead comedy. (Don’t ask.)

But at night I’m Buster Keaton. My hero. Bruises on my elbows, scrapes on my knees, heart on my sleeve.

Wish me luck.

© 2012 BackStage

At the Clinic - Young and Old Buster

L.A. Stage Times

The Stewarts Put on a Stoneface at Sacred Fools

There were moments when French Stewart’s mind would wander—years before the actor was known for standing rigid, like an antenna, receiving incoming messages from Big Giant Head on TV’s Third Rock From the Sun—imagining himself as Buster Keaton, the iconic silent-screen actor.

“In my 20s, someone showed me Seven Chances,” says Stewart, seated across from his wife, Vanessa Claire (Smith) Stewart, at a pizza joint around the corner from Sacred Fools Theater. “‘Who is this guy?’ I thought. Then I saw Sherlock Junior. Keaton was just so elegant with such amazing comedic timing. The best athlete you’ve ever seen.”

But the image that stuck with him was Keaton’s blank face. “It’s that kind of stone face that lets people paint their own faces on it, sort of like a movie screen,” says the actor.

Now pushing 50 and feeling as if the window to portray Keaton is quickly closing, he laughs as he remembers how the role in Sacred Fools' Stoneface came to him. “Vanessa had been chipping away quietly on the script because she knew I wanted to play him,” he says. “A couple of years ago she dropped the script in my lap on my birthday. She watched me read it, and I loved it. And I knew, now’s the time to do it—now or never.”

No Rocky Path to Stoneface

The couple, who celebrate their first wedding anniversary in June, knew they could count on old friends at Sacred Fools and director Jaime Robledo who helmed last year’s Watson: The Last Great Tale of the Legendary Sherlock Holmes, which featured Stewart as Sigmund Freud.

“We’re trying to re-create Buster’s life through the lens of his own movies,” says the playwright. Her husband adds, “We’re not trying to do a tribute show. You look for the person and not do a disserve to the bits. The problem is that he’s got a rabid fan base, and, the first time it was announced that I was doing this, they wanted to know if we were going to tell the truth about his life or just do another drunk story—and I didn’t want just another drunk story.”

Keaton’s well-documented alcoholism and recovery prompted the show’s tagline: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton.

Keaton lived to 70 after several marriages, including one he attributed to a drunken blackout. But it wasn’t his long years of drinking that killed him, in 1966. It was lung cancer, the same fate that in 1998 befell his last wife, Eleanor, 23 years his junior and credited for getting him to not drink himself to death. French Stewart met Eleanor in her later years and, in the email era, the two exchanged many postcards—mementos he has kept.

The playwright says, “The advantage I had was that I was writing it from a non-fan place. I’m a fan now, but not when I started. I read books. For me it’s a story of a guy who loses his fame—fights his own ego to redeem himself and realize what’s important in life.”

“You can drown in his life,” her husband adds.

“I think that’s why a lot of biopics go wrong,” she says. “I think that’s where Chaplin the movie went wrong. I think the expanse was so vast that it became…” Superficial? “Yes, superficial. I’m trying to find the humanity that everybody can relate to. What’s familiar about this story that rings true for all of us?”

She admits, “Half of it really is French’s story, too, from his life.”

The actor explains, “Well, Keaton was beat up doing these great movies, and I was beat up doing children’s movies. [I was] the guy the precocious kid kicks out of a tree house. In the ’80s, actors had to do all their own stunts. Even now you have to do it once or twice. Six years on Third Rock, I really got battered around.”

Stewart is 5-foot-9. Keaton, he says, was a couple of inches shorter. “When I started thinking about Buster Keaton, I thought about Jackie Chan,” says the actor. “He’s got the comedic chops but can also do these physical things. It’s a lot easier to toss around a smaller guy.”

Stoneface has two Buster Keatons—French Stewart playing Keaton at middle age and Joe Fria (TV’s Community) as the younger Keaton—although the playwright is concerned her husband may be doing more pratfalls than his younger counterpart.

“The younger Buster,” she explains, “is really his ego, his antagonist. He’s tortured the whole time until he gets over his own ego. Then he can realize the life he was meant to have.”

“And you have people in and out like Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Louis B. Mayer and all the wives,” says French Stewart.

Buster and Natalie perform "Oh, Queen"

A Couple of Swells

There are risks when husbands and wives team up on projects. Vanessa Stewart studied theater and, more as a byproduct, writing, at Webster Conservatory in St. Louis. Her acting chops were acknowledged when she co-created Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara with Jake Broder, which broke box office records at Sacred Fools under the direction of Jeremy Aldridge and later in 2009 under Taylor Hackford’s direction at Geffen Playhouse. She created Keely in both productions and received an Ovation Award, a Garland Award and an L.A. Weekly Award for her performance.

As the writer of Stoneface, however, she and her husband sometimes have been at odds. He says, “We’ll sit at home and I’ll say, ‘Come on, I really need this,’ and she’ll say, ‘But I really need this.’ A writer’s always going to look at the structure and the arc, so a lot of times we have to chip away to find a middle ground.”

Pointing to her husband, she says, “And you have to become the expert of your character. I think there’s a lot of respect [among the entire cast], thank God, because a lot of these people could be divas if they wanted to be.”

“But when we all first met,” he says of the cast, “I said we all have to check our egos at the door. And everyone has.”

The playwright, who’s now sweating the imminent launch of Stoneface after Louis & Keely’s success, credits director Robledo. “He gave me such a gift,” she says. “He said to ‘just write whatever and I’ll find a way to make it happen.’”

She explains the challenges. “There are seemingly impossible things in Stoneface, like an underwater scene and a storm scene, but [Robledo] has such a gift for imagination that he can give us something in theater that you just wouldn’t see on television. I mean, he can take a piece of paper and make a wig.”

Simplicity appeals to the couple. Last year’s Academy Award–winning movie The Artist, for example, buoys their spirits. “That really gave me hope,” he says. “To win an Oscar with a silent movie in 2012 put something in the ether that told us maybe it’s a good time to do this.”

The Ups and Downs of Theater and Film

Shopping Louis & Keely in New York has led Vanessa Stewart to see many of the plays most recently nominated for Tony Awards. And the experience was not necessarily pleasant. “I always get mad when I go to the theater and the story isn’t there or the characters aren’t there,” she says. “I mean, that’s all we have. I saw American Idiot and a lot of shows that season, and time after time I didn’t care about the characters or the story or their effects.”

Her husband picks up the thought. “Punk rock is not Broadway,” he says. “And when you put something on Broadway that’s dirty and in a club, it’s disingenuous.”

“I think shows are becoming too ‘Hollywood’ and trying to ‘special effect’ their way into people’s wallets,” she adds. Her husband rejoins, “I don’t want to see that. You wind up with Spider-Man in an orchestra pit…. Vegas does it better than Broadway. I want to see Willy Loman. That play [Death of a Salesman] is the most heart-crunching American story. It kills me.”

The couple laughs at French Stewart’s latest acting gigs. He has been filming two “really questionable” zombie flicks. “Last week I chop off some dude’s arm with an axe and then come in here to do this. And in the other, I have to run down the street naked and get tackled by extras.”

“An overzealous extra,” says his wife.

“And the chimp who kept putting his finger in my ear,” he says. “They can get aggressive. ‘Leave it, leave it’ the trainer said, and I knew I was the ‘it.’ It’s a weird cycle of crap in the morning and art at night.”

Types and Casting

Once Stoneface gets on its feet, Vanessa Stewart can return to a couple of projects she has temporarily put into a drawer. “I’m going to pitch a TV show with a friend about New Orleans. My next play is either about Bessie Smith or the Andrews Sisters. I just ordered the two books and will start reading them to see if anything rings my bell.” Her niche is history. “I like Clara Bow, too,” she says. “I enjoy looking for ways to make characters seem more human.”

Her husband says he is not worried that he might have been “Gilliganized” or stuffed so far into a corner based on his Third Rock character that he can’t get cast in serious roles—a fate the late actor Bob Denver encountered. In fact, over the past two seasons, French Stewart has appeared on TV’s Everyone Counts, Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior, Allen Gregory and Community.

“Once I’m in the door, it’s usually fine,” he says of typecasting. “They didn’t do it to me. I did it, and I have a nice house for it. What am I going to do, cry about it? I like my life. For a long time I liked doing slapstick stuff, and then I wanted to do something else.”

His wife nods in agreement as he adds with a laugh, “A career is a long time. People say life is short, but it’s not. It goes on a really long time. I’m just trying to milk the most out of it I can.”

--Steve Julian
© 2012 L.A. Stage Times

Buster and Roscoe boxing

L.A. Weekly

French Stewart on Playing Buster Keaton in a New Bio-Play

By the end of his five-year run on the hit screwball sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun, French Stewart found himself at a career crossroads. The problem was that his success as the series' hilariously harebrained extraterrestrial with the quizzical squint, Harry Solomon, had in the eyes of Hollywood typecast him. He was effectively the new Gilligan. Stewart huddled with his agent. "I asked him, 'What can I expect?'" Stewart recalls. "He said, 'If you want to be in a big movie, you can have a small part as a retarded guy. If you want to be in a small movie, you can play a lead retarded guy. And if you want to be in the theater, you can play King Lear because you've been on a TV show.' And it was really true, you know?"

Opting for none of the above (including his now-former agent), Stewart returned to the stage, paying for the privilege with a steady stream of solid character work in TV and films.

A decade later, the actor nurses a beer around the corner from the Sacred Fools Theater, where he is finally getting his chance to tackle what may be the Lear of comedy -- portraying silent-film legend Buster Keaton in the new play Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton.

The notion of somehow cracking Keaton on the stage has been something of on obsession for Stewart. A lifelong fan, it was only after seeing the 1924, metacinematic masterpiece Sherlock, Jr. in his early '20s that Stewart was swept away. "I remember seeing it and just thinking, 'Oh my God! What do we have that's like him today?'" Stewart says. "He's like this great athlete and great comedian. I mean the closest thing I always say is [somebody] like Jackie Chan....But the fact that this guy could go this long and sort of move to a second tier in a way -- I just couldn't understand it. I just thought he was an elegant artist."

For Stewart, playing Keaton is both intimidating ("because I'm pushing 50, and I just can't do what he does") and a gift -- literally. The playwright is Stewart's wife, Vanessa Claire Stewart (the costar and co-writer of Sacred Fools' 2008 hit Louis and Keely Live at the Sahara), who dropped the finished play in his lap last year as a surprise for his 47th birthday. "She had been working on it quietly," he says. "And she just gave it to me. And I sat there and I read it, and it was exactly what I wanted. ... She just has a way of taking reality and bending it so it's not mimicry, and finding something else in it that's relevant for people right now."

What finally clinched the deal was Vanessa's idea of telling Keaton's story from the perspective of "the middle part" -- the period after the great silent work, when the advent of sound, the creativity-constricting tyranny of the studio system and the traumatic break-up of Keaton's first marriage sent the star into a spiraling free-fall of alcoholic self-destruction. "So it's really starting from the bottom and then, through a variety of ways, we're using bits -- classic bits -- and bending them to sort of tell the story of what he was and what he is now, and then just getting to a point of redemption," Stewart says.

For a mid-career comic actor, the middle approach is inspired. For the fanatically protective Buster community, however, still smarting from 1957's execrable Donald O'Connor biopic fantasy The Buster Keaton Story, the announcement set off alarm bells on the blogosphere. "We started getting phone calls and letters from people who were just really invested in Keaton and didn't want to sit through another bad Donald O'Connor movie; they didn't want a sad drunk movie," Stewart says. "You know, they wanted the actual story, and the hardest part about that story is that he's really interesting from cradle to grave. ... So we have to balance paying tribute to him with telling kind of the rough part of his life, which is a lot."

Whether the play will appease the Buster fans remains to be seen. For his part, Stewart is refreshingly humble and realistic. "I can't be Keaton, you know?" he says. "All I can do is warp his bits to illustrate his life. And that's it. Anybody who thinks they can be Keaton, they haven't done it so far. ... But I think if you just sort of concentrate on your strengths and tell the story and don't get too far off the reservation in terms of what you can and can't do then you're okay."

--Bill Raden
© 2012 L.A. Weekly

French Stewart & Vanessa Claire Stewart
Photo by Michael Robinson Chavez

L.A. Times

'Stoneface' a birthday gift for French Stewart

In 2010, the actor's then girlfriend and now wife, Vanessa Claire Smith, surprised him with a script about his idol, Buster Keaton. The play's a big hit now.

If your boyfriend's birthday is coming up and you're low on cash, you can always write him a starring role in a play.

That's what Vanessa Claire Smith did for French Stewart in 2010, surprising him with a script about his idol, Buster Keaton.

Two years later, "Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton" just opened to glowing reviews at Sacred Fools Theatre in Hollywood, and the newly minted Stewarts are coming up on their first wedding anniversary.

But because even happy endings have their hitches, a hot Sunday in June finds the couple cooling down in a bar around the corner from Sacred Fools, after a broken air conditioner made a matinee performance of "Stoneface" especially grueling.

"Next time, you're writing me a little Noel Coward-style tea party where I never get up," says French.

"My first play bought the theater that air conditioner," Vanessa says with a sigh.

That first play, in which she starred with her co-author, Jake Broder, was "Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara," the story of jazz greats Louis Prima and Keely Smith told through their music. After earning Sacred Fools the air conditioner in 2008, it moved on to the Geffen, where it ran for eight months.

French was performing in "Matthew Modine Saves the Alpacas," also at the Geffen. The casts socialized in the green room.

"He would flirt with me a little bit," recalls Vanessa. "I was kind of shy and he's obviously gregarious, and I wasn't sure if he was joking or actually flirting."

"Yeah, well, there's a 13-year age difference," puts in French (he's 48; she's 35). "So I felt like it was a fine line between, you know, fishing for a nice lady and being some pervy creep that nobody wants to see in the green room. So I'd flirt in a funny way."

But when Vanessa saw French's show, "my curiosity went to an instant crush, because I had no idea that he was that good. It blew my mind. That night on my way home, I was like, 'I'm just going to do this.' I called and said I'd be in a tiki bar near my apartment if he wanted to say hi."

"I didn't realize until then that my Prius could do a doughnut in the opposite direction," recalls French.

French, best known as Harry Solomon on "3rd Rock From the Sun" (1996-2001), had been working in the theater and taking pratfall-heavy roles in movies such as "Home Alone 4" and "Inspector Gadget 2" ever since — and feeling battered and unappreciated.

Vanessa agreed. "I didn't think people understood how good and how versatile he was. In my mind, he's like a Philip Seymour Hoffman."

In that fateful tiki bar, she says, "It came up that his life's dream was to be Buster Keaton, but he thought he was too old."

She determined to prove him wrong. "I didn't know anything about that time or those people, but I love history, so it was a pleasure to order books and documentaries. And to me, the interesting part of Keaton's life was actually this part, where French is. I'd see him at the Geffen doing flips, and then he'd limp to his car. Like Keaton, he was giving everything he had to entertain these people."

Writing the script in secret as their romance blossomed, she hesitated to show him. "Since he held Keaton in such a reverent way, I didn't want to ruin it for him. But when I felt I could tell the story correctly, I thought, 'Maybe I'll give it a shot.' Also," she adds dryly, "I didn't have a whole lot of money at the time, and I needed a birthday present."

The surprise resonated with French. "I knew it was good because the more I worked on it, the more I realized, 'Oh!' And then the things I originally wanted changed, I was like, 'Put it back. Sorry.'"

Vanessa nods, with a smile of vindication — although as a writer, she encourages collaboration. She hoped all along, she said, that director Jaime Robledo and the "Stoneface" cast, including Joe Fria, who plays the younger Keaton, would make the physical bits their own.

"The original idea was that Joe would do all the tricks and I'd waddle around and be drunk," says French. "But now it appears that I'm doing all the tricks."

"You're good at them," Vanessa points out.

"But my question to you is: Did you take out an insurance policy on me?"

No, French is not always "on," Vanessa says, but he is "always amusing. That's why I have such great abs, because I'm laughing all the time."

"At home, I get quiet," he insists. "I used to look at my dad and wonder, 'How can a grown man fall asleep in a chair?' Now, that's one of my moves."

Although Vanessa mostly plays the straight man in their shtick, she has her own gift for the well-placed zinger. They've been toying with the idea of a Sonny and Cher-style act, and he guest stars in the jazz sets she sings around town to stay in voice for "Louis & Keely," which, she says, "is still in the picture. We're working on moving it to the next thing."

(Asked by email for details of "Louis & Keely's" future, Vanessa replied, "I haven't been green lit to formally announce what's officially happening. Jake [Broder] and I have been opening up the script a bit to make it fit a bigger venue. It's moved a bit slower than I would like, but we're still on track to get it up and going at a theater not in Los Angeles very soon. How's that for vague?")

Although she considered taking a role in "Stoneface," she ultimately decided against it.

"I felt like this was his show. I wanted to be in the audience opening night seeing him get his due. When I imagined it in my brain, it was much more exciting to be in the audience. I cried when The Times called him a 'revelation.' I wanted French to be seen as something other than what people knew him as. That was my inspiration for doing the play and why I stuck with it."

It almost sounds as if he's her muse.

"You're very much my muse," she tells him.

"Your wrinkled muse," he rejoins.

After selling out its initial run, "Stoneface" has been extended through July 15, with Thursday night performances added.

Now the biggest challenge for the couple is "What's next?"

"My dream is that both our shows will be in New York at the same time," says Vanessa. "'Stoneface' is opening, 'Louis & Keely' is there. We do our shows…"

French finishes the thought: "Go to Elaine's, smoke a cigarette, punch a cop."

Vanessa notices that she is indeed pretending to hold a cigarette. "I don't even smoke."

French nods sympathetically. "You're gonna have to start, honey. Gotta try."

--Margaret Gray
© 2012 L.A. Times

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At a Glance
Thurs-Fri-Sat @ 8pm
Sunday Matinees @ 2pm
Written by
Vanessa Claire Stewart
Directed by
Jaime Robledo
Produced by
Brian W. Wallis
French Stewart as Buster Keaton
Joe Fria as Young Buster
Scott Leggett as Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle
See the full cast