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What if the Pageant of the Masters Danced?

[Flashback from Moira's Archives of Rant: This created a lot of controversy when first published. Now, of course, the Pageant has taken Moira’s advice and lets the paintings move.]

For those who have never witnessed Laguna’s Pageant of the Masters, the two-hour spectacle set to live music and lively narration is a lazy lesson in art history. Sitting under the stars in the tree-lined Irvine Bowl, you can witness a Renoir, a Bingham, a Van Gogh, or a Cellini, which looks frighteningly close to the real thing without ever leaving your seat. With creative roots in Europe, where centuries ago, the art form known as tableaux vivants was developed, the Pageant has been making what’s really three dimensional appear as two. And Laguna’s version has taken this concept to a zenith of technical sophistication so profound that unless one of the volunteers who strike poses on stage night after night gets a case of the nervous shakes, you can’t even tell there are people up there.

For the Laguna Beach art community, the Pageant of the Masters is a crucial support vehicle. And it is remarkable to watch, for about a half hour. But herein lies the problem: With all that sophisticated lighting, makeup art, still acting, sets, and costumes developed to the minutest detail, it looks too perfect. The pageant’s traditional Last Supper looks not like a “living painting,” but like a slide presentation of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous fresco. At least before it deteriorated in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan and became off limits to the public. Now if there was some action up there – like if when Jesus announced that one of the disciples present had betrayed him, all the others slowly pointed their fingers at Judas, or something more sacrilegious, like one of the apostles getting a little tipsy from the wine and starting a food fight – no one would become confused about where they were. And the whole two-hour, 22-piece Pageant would become more avant-garde and unpredictable, like art in Laguna Beach is supposed to be. Think of the possibilities:

That man levitating in the piece of Steuben glass crystal is Orpheus, the great lyre player whose music was so beautiful he could calm wild animals and charm rocks. He descended to the underworld to retrieve his lover, turned around too quickly and lost her, only to be later torn to shreds by crazed followers of Bacchus. Imagine if he started to play music in there, or better yet, since he’s nude, what if he turned around?

The Death Spiral, a re-creation of artist Douglas Gebler’s bronze statue of two skaters in a technically difficult ice skating position, looks much like the original sculpture displayed on the festival grounds. Now what is it we fear most watching skaters on the ice during the Olympics? We fear they will fall. So let them.

Cicely Barker’s Flower Fairies are dangling precariously on the branches of trees, their delicate translucent wings just aching for freedom. If someone hooked them up to wire, they could be like Tinker Bell and flutter off the stage.

Now take Backgammon, one of the great Orientalist works by Rudoli Von Ottenfeld. It seems civilized enough, with three men donning traditional Islamic costumes playing what appears to be a peaceful game of backgammon. But you know there’s tension in the room because the one not playing appears to be acting as a guard. There’s a gun and a sword on the wall, and a large hookah pipe sits ready for action in the hand of one of the players. He definitely needs to take a hit and blow out some smoke.

And how about those Three Bodhisattvas of Thailand sitting on ceremonial lions and elephants and dogs? The wooden sculpture depicts these Buddhist spirits, deep in meditation, on their pilgrimage towards enlightenment. Now this may sound tacky, but couldn’t they open their eyes and let out a resounding aaaaaaoooooommmmmm?

Look around the Bowl. People are starting to squirm a little until the Raftsmen Playing Cards show the audience that pieces of their limbs, torsos and heads are painted illusions that work with the canvases based on color and lighting. And just when they’re squirming again at the end of Act I, the Munich Glockenspiel gongs, followed by Antique Mechanical Toys, that actually move. I say next year, let the Pageant surprise us. Let it dance.


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