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.
This is a play about the embodiment of our primal fantasies and fears, the contradiction of being both superhuman and subhuman, discarded and redeemed, mortal and immortal, forgotten and then remembered, maybe with a wink but with barely a smile.
STONEFACE: THE RISE AND FALL AND RISE OF BUSTER KEATON | By Vanessa Claire Stewart | Sacred Fools Theater Company, 660 N. Heliotrope Drive, Hlywd. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through June 20 | (323) 281-8337