Stoneface: or, the comedy of dignity, by Buster Keaton
Sacred Fools is a little theater in Hollywood with a big hit: Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton. Wonderful to see the spirit of Keaton brought back to life in the 21st century. Critics and audiences both love this show, and that too is wonderful to see — a truly delightful success on stage.
This is a show that brings to life countless classic gags (stunts, we would call them today) from the silent era of silent movies, all the while gracefully, amusingly, touchingly, telling the true story of Buster Keaton. The gags are so physical that the show — a charmer — becomes almost pure dance for much of the time, and about half the first act.
The storytelling lets us see the angst in Keaton's life, but his joys and his uniqueness too. Even though Keaton's life was as sad at times, in many respects, as the fictional tale of The Artist last year, this story (as the subtitle indicates) is funnier and a lot less melodramatic.
What makes the show work, most of all, is the immense dignity of French Stewart (best known as one of the stars of Third Rock from the Sun). With his inimitably dry voice, the gravity of his stony expression, and the way his stoneface sometmes cracks up. Turns out there's a reason for the depth of his portrayal.
In the program, the writer Vanessa Claire Stewart explained that when she happened to meet the actor, and learned he had always wanted to portray Keaton, but feared he had grown too old, she set out to write a play to allow him to become Buster Keaton. In the process, evidently, they fell in love and married. Another wonderful twist to a unique story.
It's a triumph. And the play includes Buster Keaton's most famous gag, an incredible feat on stage. (Buster's original classic version can be seen at the end of the delightful video poem extolling his comedy by Dana Stevens, film critic for Slate, below). Amazing.