Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Pageant of the Masters: Frozen Fun on a Warm Evening

Ultimate Challenge sculpture, Huntington Beach, CA

What do Arrested Development and Gilmore Girls have in common with the artsy seaside community of Laguna Beach, California? Episodes of these two well-loved TV series have borrowed from Laguna Beach the concept of a pageant in which live performers pose, frozen in place, to simulate famous works of art. 

These tableaux vivants (or “living pictures”) are an old-fashioned idea, from the days well before TV and movies, when entertainment needed to be simpler and more home-grown. I remember from my girlhood a sweet scene in Louisa May Alcott’s 1880 novel, Jack and Jill, in which the novel’s main characters posed as characters from American history, culminating in one young fellow impersonating Daniel Chester French’s famous statue, The Minuteman. But the impulse to mimic sacred works of painting and sculpture can be traced back to the Medieval church. And, centuries later, titillating shows like the Ziegfeld Follies enjoyed turning semi-draped young women into living sculpture.

Enough history lesson! Laguna’s so-called Pageant of the Masters, which has been around since 1933, is a triumph of community spirit. Hundreds of local volunteers, under the direction of a small and devoted paid staff, gather each summer for eight weeks of posing in the name of art appreciation. And a quarter of a million viewers gather in comfortable outdoor surroundings to marvel at what costumes, lighting, stage sets, and deep dedication can do. A lively narration, a few dancers, some gimmickry. and a live orchestra playing appropriate tunes add much-needed pizzazz: there is only so long you can marvel at living paintings before you start wanting SOMETHING to break up the stillness.

The 2018 theme is “Under the Sun,” featuring works of art set in natural surroundings. Some are by true masters like Monet and Gauguin: the Laguna folks ably reproduce impressionistic oil paintings set in Giverny and Tahiti. But this year’s pageant also salutes artists closer to home, including a few twentieth-century plein air painters who were involved in the festival’s founding. There are also some imaginative touches, like reproductions of those enticing California citrus labels, with their Indian maidens and bathing beauties on full display. Just for fun, this scene is punctuated by giant plastic “oranges” that bounce across the stage, to the crowd’s delight.

My favorite section, though,  focuses on one of California’s favorite outdoor sports: surfing. The orchestra strikes up a Beach Boys tune, and skateboarders whiz through the Irvine Bowl as a prelude to the curtain opening upon an ocean vista. Video projections (much used throughout the pageant to enhance our sense of nature’s majesty) here bring us the crash of ocean waves—waves much like those real ones a short walk away, just off the Laguna strand. But the highlight, of course, is the reproduction of a painting. It features a young man in an impossible pose, not moving a muscle while he crouches on his board, the surf spraying up behind him as he barely avoids a wipeout.

Several minutes later, there’s the depiction of another work of art featuring a surfer. This is Edmund Shumpert’s bronze statue, “Ultimate Challenge,” which immortalizes an iconic male figure riding a curl. The original stands in nearby Huntington Beach, which has officially dubbed itself Surf City U.S.A. The figure on the stage has been made up to look like bronze; somehow invisibly strapped to his board, he slowly turns on a revolving platform to give the audience the chance to see him in the round. His thighs must be silently screaming, but it’s a gnarly sight. Better, I’m sure, than George-Michael Bluth posing as Michelangelo’s Adam in the (almost) altogether. 

Poster featuring a local posing as a surfer

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