Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Rustic Pageantry

July 19, 2008

Gillian Anderson in The House of Mirth
Photo : Sony Pictures Classics
So a friend of mine recently invited me to catch the Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach as part of the Laguna Festival of Arts. This is an annual event now celebrating its 75th anniversary and is dedicated to keeping alive the tradition of tableaux vivants in which live performers are made up and posed in theatrically lit arrangements which, here, serve as life-size reproductions of famous works of art be they sculpture or paintings. I must admit that this is one Southern California experience I had not yet availed myself of, and heaven knows I am far from predisposed to avoiding entertainments of a Victorian nature, so off to the beach I went. (Those of you who know how much I detest the beach can affirm the magnitude of this sacrifice.) And while it is true that the Pageant was nowhere near as entertaining as bear baiting (I imagine), it was intriguing to see it in the flesh.

I was rather surprised by the whole affair on many levels. In my mind I envisioned some well-appointed chateau with visitors wandering from room to room gawking at young socialites made up to look like they stepped out of an Ingres or a Millet – kind of like Gillian Anderson in The House of Mirth. Needless to say I was somewhat disappointed by the reality of the very staged and eager-to-please production involving hundreds of volunteers in the large outdoor amphitheater. Over 30 tableaux were presented in a two and a half hour presentation with intermission. Each tableaux is revealed for many seconds while accompanied by live, if uninspired, orchestral accompaniment with copious amounts of banal narration in between. It’s not unlike a Disneyland ride without the thrills.

The tableaux themselves cover an enormous array of figurative art from numerous cultural traditions and eras. Everything is centered around a single theme, which this year was “All the World’s a Stage,” providing an excuse to recreate works concerning Shakespeare, his writing, or general theatrical or dramatic events and skills. While there are certainly many familiar works including da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” which always closes the show, the Pageant allows plenty of room for less common works as well. Of course they're never going to do a Rothko or a Pollock, but the tableaux are remarkable in the quality of their reproductions and I wished I could sit closer to further enjoy the detail. However, the presentation does create a real sense of disconnect, in that the major tension—that live, moving performers are compelled to stay silent and immobile throughout—is never really resolved. The audience is not regularly given the satisfaction of seeing these elaborate constructions form or dissolve outside of a brief "builder" segment where the audience is given a very brief behind-the-scenes look at the set up of one tableau. The result is a rather sterile and removed experience that in a typical Hollywood fashion often makes the reproductions seem more "real" than the actual real object they are meant to represent.

Still, the level of craftsmanship is remarkable and I don't think I've ever seen a clearer and more convincing argument for the importance and power of effective stage lighting. The show continues through August 30 in Laguna Beach if you are so interested.

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