French Stewart pays tribute to silent film star Buster Keaton in ‘Stoneface,’ written by Stewart’s wife, Vanessa
By Jana J. Monji 05/28/2014
You’d have to have a heart of, well, stone not to appreciate the love behind the Pasadena Playhouse’s production of “Stoneface,” a tale in which French Stewart stars as silent film star Buster Keaton in a story that began as a birthday present from Stewart’s wife, Vanessa Claire Stewart.
French calls it “a physically and emotionally dangerous show,” but it’s also a homemade homage to his hero. Known for his deadpan demeanor and physical agility, Joseph Frank Keaton in his prime wrote, directed and starred in his films.
“He was like the Michael Jordan of movies,” French said in a recent interview with the Pasadena Weekly. “The closest we have now is Jackie Chan.”
Vanessa wrote the play because “at the time,” she says, “I was so poor that I thought it was all I had to offer [French].”
For French, bringing this show from a small theater to the Playhouse is a professional homecoming. When he first came to Los Angeles from New Mexico, he was an usher at the Playhouse and attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts when it was still in Pasadena.
Perhaps best known for his role as the dimwitted alien in the 1996-2001 TV comedy “3rd Rock from the Sun,” French now plays the arrogant Chef Rudy on CBS’s “Mom.”
Those familiar with the local theater scene might also know French from his days as a member of Justin Tanner’s Cast Theatre. More recently, in 2011 French starred as a vocal coach who must deal with a tone-deaf wannabe diva played by fellow Cast Theatre alumni Laurie Metcalf in “Voice Lessons” at French’s new theatrical home, Sacred Fools Theatre Co. in East Hollywood.
In 2008, Sacred Fools produced a show written by and starring French’s future wife, then Vanessa Claire Smith, called “Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara,” which transferred to the Geffen Playhouse, where French had a supporting role in the Geffen production of “Matthew Modine Saves the Alpacas.” It was there that French met Vanessa, and they soon began dating. French eventually revealed to her his admiration for Keaton.
In a separate telephone interview, Vanessa explained, “I knew he had such a love for this man that, as I was falling in love with French, I wanted to know about his hero, too.” About six months later, for his birthday French received a draft of “Stoneface” as a gift.
Vanessa commented that once French had it in his hands, they contacted director Jaime Robledo, who had previously worked with Vanessa and directed French in the play “Watson” at Sacred Fools.
French explained, “What we did with ‘Stoneface’ [at Sacred Fools] was grow it. It’s like growing a flower out of the pavement in a tough neighborhood.” With glowing reviews from the LA Times and the LA Weekly, the team was able to grow that production for the Pasadena Playhouse under the theater’s artistic director, Sheldon Epps.
The full title of the play is “Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton,” and begins at a low point in the main character’s life. What was later recognized as his greatest achievement, 1926’s “The General,” broke Keaton. Faced with financial and personal problems, the actor drank himself into being a has-been.
As French explained, “I play him middle-aged; he’s a little drunk and physically depleted.” A younger actor plays Keaton in his youth. “The show starts with him in a straightjacket in a drunk tank, having married a nurse. He doesn’t even know who she is.” Keaton’s story is told through scenes from his movies that are worked into the context of the show as metaphors.
This team has worked hard to retain the play’s homemade feel. As Robledo explained, “We’re keeping the heart and putting it in a better body; the heart and soul aren’t changing.”
Robledo also found parallels between French and Keaton.
“There is such great dignity in both French and Buster, their trials and ups and downs in life,” Robledo said. “They aspire to something greater than what they were pigeonholed as.”
For Vanessa, the play’s success was “very much a Cinderella-like story for me. I was worried that I was a one-hit wonder. Whether you know Buster Keaton or not, this is a human story, a story of redemption about an artist who, like French, was also very underrated in his time. This is a bigger, better version than the one at Sacred Fools.”
“Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton” opens on June 3 and continues until June 29 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Visit pasadenaplayhouse.org or call (626) 356-7529 for more information.