'Performing' a painting can be an art well, almost an art

The reproductions at the Laguna Festival of Arts get more attention than their originals. At a Laguna Canyon amphitheater, a full house awaits each one in rapt silence and breaks into applause when the lights come on.

On stage is what looks like a slide reproduction of "Cornelia, Mother of Gracchi," a painting by Angelica Kauffman.

But it's not. this Cornelia will take a deep breath when the lights go off, and the crouching child on the left will straighten up and stretch his back.

In this year's "Pageant of the MAsters," which just completed its 45th season , actors "performed" some 23 paintings, posters, statues, porcelain figurines, and a Wedgwood plaque.

This mimickry of art is well-developed art itself, pracriced and perfected here -- and practically nowhere else -- since 1933. Then a Laguna bEach artist, hard-pressed to sell paintings in a depressed economy, conceived the idea as a sideshow to the Festival of Arts.

The acted-out art, and probably the sculpture more than anything else, is plausibly lifelike, or artlike. As a show, it works.

It's very popular -- too popular. Locally, perhaps the most noted aspect of the pagent is that it is nearly impossible to get tickets. Except for members of the Festival of Arts organization and other special cases, ticket orders this year were only taken if they bore a Feb. 14 postmark. And even of orders with this date, thousands were sent back.

So under 128,000 fortunate or well-connected people see the pageant during each 48-night season, this year from July 8 to Aug. 24.

Orchestra music and narration by Thurl Ravenscroft and the voices of Tony the Tiger and several Disney characters set the mood and carry the audience from one scene to the next, while stagehands and the characters set up the next work of art.

In most of the scenes performed here, only the people and what they wear are real. The rest is part of the painted backdrop, which usually has the characters wedged halfway into it, and a foreground where necessary. The background canvas is often curved outward the bottom so the actors can stand in their proper place in the picture's perspective and still appear as one-dimensional as a hanging piece of art.

Lighting is crucial. The show is only held at night. Eight- thirty is well after dark in southern California, and in the Irvine Bowl, settled in the fold of a hillside, the night-blue sky and the lights of the music stands in the orchestra are the only light between scenes. The music follows the period and mood of the artwork and contributes dramatic force to the acts.

The first few presentations draw murmurs from the audience as people realize that what looks like marble, porcelain, or paint is really theater.

The actors playing figurines have the dull, lacquered sheen of porcelain. In the impressionist Children by the Sea by Edward Henry Potthast, a swatch of white makeup across a child's face looks like a brush stroke from the audience seats. Legs and clothes are similarly painted and made up.

Ideally the actors, or models, don't blink or breathe during the 90 seconds they are in the spotlight, but sometimes an arm or bent knee wavers subtly in space. Some of the poses are difficult. In the bronze sculpture "The Hunt," for example, the goddess Diana stands with one foot secured to each of two running dogs with her legs outstretched and her arms in the air. The model's dogs aren't living models too, but the foothold is precarious.

The finale to each performance since 1936 has been Da Vinci's "Last Supper." It's a crowd pleaser here. It combines the something of the classical effect of Da Vinci's painting with the tantalizing idea that the characters are actually alive, that one can almost see the creases on their faces.

The table in the "Last Supper" setting is a study in perspective. Set as a 45-degree angle to the horizontal, it is half the depth it appears and is covered with goblets, bowls, and plates, all normal width, but half depth and twisted to the 45 degree angle of the table.

While the pageant has been invited to travel to places as diverse as Austria and Japan, it is anchored to Laguna Beach by its use of around 400 volunteers, including all of the models and most of those working in the factory warehouse of wardrobes, wigs, changing rooms, and makeup mirrors beneath the stage. the head of each department, however, is professional.

Roughly 1,000 potential characters answered the casting call this year and were filed by size, features, and bone structure, then photographed in a mirrored booth. The casting is based on two qualities only -- resemblance to a crahacter and size that fits the scale of the others in the scene. The art director determines the scale each work will have according to who he has for the parts.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.