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Reviewed by:
  • The Screen Dreams of Buster Keaton directed by Rachel Joseph
  • Richard H. Armstrong
THE SCREEN DREAMS OF BUSTER KEATON. Written and directed by Rachel Joseph. The Overtime Theater Company in the Gregg Barrios Theater, San Antonio, Texas. 24 August 2013.

What is the difference between sitting in a theatre and a cinema? The movie spectator may be sucked into a powerful illusion, but as silent film reminds us, the cinematic illusion is mere surface play of light and shadow onscreen. The tumbling Buster Keaton is a mechanically reproduced trace of something that happened long ago, without the risk and urgency of pratfalling in the present. Whatever its commonalities with theatre, cinema cannot help but point beyond the stage by the very fact that it is always the chemical (now digital) residue of absent performers. But at the outset of The Screen Dreams of Buster Keaton, the eponymous hero (played serenely by Andrew Thornton) walked out of a projection screen onto the stage, marking the transgression that was the gauntlet thrown down by this work. The theatre has long been home to metatheatrical tricks, such as characters seated in among the audience or actors who smash the conventions of fourth-wall voyeurism by staring-down the patrons. This performance sported such gags, which were especially well-suited to the black-box venue that is home to the Overtime Theater. But the real violation, and revelation, of Rachel Joseph’s play seems to be more a matter of metacinema: that is, violating the proscenium of the magical picture screen and forcing us to see the movie actor as a sweaty, embodied being.

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Buster Keaton (Andy Thornton) in The Screen Dreams of Buster Keaton.

(Photo: Siggi Ragnar.)

This opening gambit recalled Keaton’s 1924 film Sherlock, Jr. in which he played a sleeping projectionist who, in one of the technical marvels of early cinema, dreams he enters the screen of the film he is projecting. The play replies to it by reversing the direction and drawing the serene Keaton out into the intimacy of a live audience. This establishes [End Page 448] Buster’s soft presence as a centering element of the performance, but one that weighs differently. He is no longer the mild, luminous face on which we can project anything (much less commanding than Chaplin’s deeply etched tramp); once transferred to the stage, he became a flesh-and-blood body in motion, one who talked and whose pratfalls had sound and weight—but still no tragic consequences. You just cannot bust Buster.

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The company in The Screen Dreams of Buster Keaton.

(Photo: Siggi Ragnar.)

The performance was encyclopedic in its sheer variety of spectacle. Theatre and cinema were juxtaposed from the start by silent film clips illuminating screens at center stage as the audience entered. These were watched by planted cast members, suggesting that our parts had already been taken and charging the air with giddy uncertainty. The action of the play unfolded as an encounter between Buster and the Dreaming Girl (Elizabeth Anne Cave), whose oneiric visions seemed to merge with nothing less than the history of cinema, with bits of Méliès, Kubrick, and Romero flashing by. Her bed was framed by an armchair, where Sigmund Freud sat reading, and a rocking chair festooned with scraps of film, upon which an old woman claiming to be Samuel Beckett parked herself. Such a freighted mise en scène felt, at first, like an allegory waiting to happen—and luckily it did not. These twentieth-century icons no more had the answer to the meaning of the play than did the Dreaming Girl or the transplanted Buster. Freud emerged from his chair to repeat maniacally, “remembering, repetition, working through,” waxing comical, not authoritative. The woman calling herself Beckett made some fragmentary, lugubrious interventions that fell far short of delivering a message. The two iconic figures were clearly parts of the puzzle, not the key; whatever play of ideas was going on here, it was going to surface as performance, not debate or diatribe.

In fact, the production toyed constantly with the ethereality of...


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pp. 448-450
Launched on MUSE
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