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Arts and Entertainment

Life Imitating Art Imitating Life

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When I was in elementary school, we had this art program called Meet the Masters in which our “docent” would educate us about a famous artist and allow us to employ the artist’s signature techniques. As an eight-year old, it was an enjoyable way to not only about art history, but appreciate the creativity and skill of the masters, whether it was the pointillism of Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, the Post-Impressionist swirls in Van Gogh’s Starry Night, or the cubist style of Picasso’s Guernica. For a kid who was not artistically-inclined (Open House was always a bit of an embarrassment for me to show my parents how hideous my work was compared to the other kids), it helped bring art to life.

Down in Laguna Beach, art has been part of the local culture since its days in the early 1900s as an artist colony (long before it was known for bimbos in beemers). For the last 75 years, the city has been literally bringing art to life through its annual summer showcase, Pageant of the Masters. One of the crown jewels of Orange County, POM is a mind-blowing celebration of artistic work using a technique called tableaux vivants, or living pictures. In a nutshell, famous paintings and sculptures are recreated using actual people in costume and makeup, with intricately designed backgrounds to make it look like the original work of art.

If the concept sounds hard to grasp, imagine looking at a three-dimensional version of a painting, except for the fact that the sets and lighting are done in such a way to make it look like you’re looking at a two-dimensional piece of art. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes (which are admittedly a bit faulty). But I found myself constantly squinting and rubbing throughout the show because it sure as heck looked like something painted on a canvas, rather than live-bodied people in costume.

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Put on by a dedicated staff and hundreds of volunteers, this year's Pageant is themed "Young at Heart" to capture both the essence of youth and the celebration of life. The show features a mix of mediums and time periods, from old French marble statues to 20th century British watercolors. The first act contains depictions of oil paintings and sculptures from favorite fairy tales such as Cinderella and Snow White. For the bronze sculpture depicting Peter Pan, they added a fun twist with a 'Tinkerbell' flying above the crowd. One of my favorites was the more modern magazine art, which recreated magazine covers from the 1950s with scenes like Working on the Jalopy and Crying on Santa's Lap. While the second act seems to wander from the theme a bit, it also offers a mix of visuals, opening with a traditional Chinese lion and dragon dance. Some notables include Hopper's New York Movie and a gilt silver chess set of Henry VIII. The final act is Da Vinci's incomparable fresco, The Last Supper, minus the "So Dark the Con of Man" scrawling.

This year, the Pageant showed how they accomplish the living picture technique through Thompson's Apple Gathering. The stage hands have a huge frame, set at a certain distance to apply the proper perspective. In the foreground, they roll in a set, which has physical props and has been painted with the appropriate shadows and colors to give the right effect, and may have the actors in place, set at a certain height to give the illusion of depth. Then, they roll in a painted background which fills in the rest of the picture. It seems more like a live diorama until they shut off the stage lights to blacken the area around the frame, then turn the lights back on to create the tableaux vivant effect. At this point, you hear the gasp through the audience as they see the transformation from random things on stage to 2D but 3D masterpiece. It's just a 'Wow!' moment.

Among the many amazing aspects of the production is the fact that each "performance" not only captures the scenes depicted in the original works, but captures the nuances of the texture and colors of the art. For example, the recreation of Impressionist paintings like Monet's Women in the Garden feature dimmer lighting, costumes with more broken colors, and a hazy background to capture the brush stroke effect, whereas the portrayal of N.C. Wyeth's mural The Giant is brightly lit, with sharper colored outfits to delineate greater depth and definition. Makeup isn't just applied to capture the color of a bronze, marble, or porcelain statue, but also the physical qualities of those elements.

The other great thing about the Pageant is the venue. Carved into the side of a hill in Laguna Canyon just up the road from main beach, the outdoor theater is OC's answer to the Greek. With the mountains in the background and the brisk air of a cool summer evening, it is a refreshing escape from the hustle and bustle of reality. POM is part of the larger Festival of Arts, which showcases the works of more than a hundred local artists in the courtyard outside the theater, and features live demonstrations and music acts as well.

The only negative? Getting a ticket. The tickets typically sell out immediately after they go on sale in late winter, so unless you are willing to pay absurd amounts through a reseller or on eBay, you're SOL.

Festival of Arts/Pageant of the Masters
650 Laguna Canyon Rd.
Laguna Beach, CA 92651

Shows nightly from July 7-August 31.