Laguna's living art. Part theater and part sculpture, the world-famous `Pageant of the Masters' re-creates works of art onstage using live models

TABLEAUX vivants seem like the quintessential Victorian cultural activity, involving art, noble themes, participation by large groups of amateurs, and something to do in the parlor of a winter evening. But what is this static art form, where living people represent sculptures and paintings, doing in southern California in our age of kinetic visual effects and lush coffeetable art books?

Well, the ``Pageant of the Masters,'' a series of 24 paintings set in a tableau form, is doing very well, thank you.

It has played here in the artists community of Laguna Beach to a sellout crowd for the last 24 of its 53 years. From an unpretentious beginning -- a side attraction to an art show, in company with an equestrian parade and a tour of artists' homes -- it has evolved, like some Darwinian lost link, into an extravagant spectacle staged in a large amphitheater.

To me ``the masters'' means Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt, so ``Pageant of the Masters'' invoked images of oily blue-green sets with draped people posed rigidly in front of them.

Instead, many of the artworks selected are by artists who are hardly household names -- perhaps all the Rembrandts have been done already -- and the overall impression is enchantingly playful and brilliantly colored. Moreover, the people are integrated into the backdrops so cleverly that the first-time viewer is hard put to distinguish flesh from canvas. Not only are people extremely well camouflaged, but it is a point of honor with participants not to move.

The evening began with the crazy grace of eight art deco ``Jazz Age'' figurines, all statuettes of dancers with flapper haircuts doing flapper things -- holding a large fan, doing the Charleston, and so on. The ``figurines'' remained immobile even when being wheeled on and off the stage.

Blinking is permitted, during the 90 seconds or so each piece is ``on.'' But when the curtain opened for Donna Schuster's impressionistic ``On the Veranda,'' I grabbed my binoculars and zeroed in on a heavily mascaraed, bravely unwinking blue stare.

There's a lot of variety in subject and feeling in the tableaux: Meissen china, all flowery curves; chunky frontal Chinese porcelains; yellow and red circus posters; a soaring Orpheus in Steuben glass; a charming pointillist painting, ``L'air du soir''; and a whole dramatic series of New Kingdom artifacts that used the mini-stages on the hills surrounding the amphitheater and a narrow stage cleverly placed on top of the main stage, to show everything from an Egyptian buckle to details of the temple of Amun at Luxor.

Halfway through the first act, ``Long Beach, New Jersey,'' by Winslow Homer, was assembled under ordinary lighting. A backdrop of cliffs and sea was rolled up, then a foreground cliff bearing two women in costume; they assumed their positions, the stage lights went on, and three dimensions magically melted into two.

The pageant is certainly an eye-catching way to be introduced to a living artist. New Mexico's John Nieto paints massive Indians in electrifying colors -- reds, purples, blues. To show the audience that the flat backdrop had openings through which the person's head, arm, and torso emerged in relief, these were first presented under a red light.

After the performance, members of the audience can go up on stage and wander around bemused among the props. Racks of costumes, at this close range, plainly betray their bleached muslin and glycerin coating origin. Particularly intriguing are the backdrops, with places for feet for those whose positions are difficult and simple metal forms that the performers drape themselves over for those whose positions are impossible.

I trailed after Glen Eytchison, who seven years ago, at the age of 23, assumed the complicated task of directing the Pageant of the Masters. All of the 132 participants (in two alternating casts) are selected for their roles by height, according to Mr. Eytchison. Height is a key factor in representing perspective in a foreshortened space. For instance, someone 6 feet 3 inches tall might be needed for the fore plane of the picture, while a small child would be needed to represent someone in the back plane. ``I have to make a four-year-old look like an old man, rather than let a man be a man and kids be kids,'' he said.

Pageant works need to have at least one human figure and must be scaled to be staged effectively. ``I went two years ago to the National Gallery of Art and only found four pictures that I was physically capable of doing. . . .

``Winslow Homer is a natural for the pageant. He paints pictures with billowing sky and billowing water and two people right in the middle.''

For this year's pageant, Mr. Eytchison commissioned a charming pastel by local artist Sally Strand. ``Saturday Matinee'' features five people standing in the foreground.

Proportions are not the only criteria for selecting pageant participants. ``Half of the Indians were women, because women are more graceful.'' In fact, he adds, the Meissen lovers were all women. ``When we put men in there, they looked threatening somehow. We put women in the men's parts, and their more delicate features made it sing.'' Practical information

The pageant runs from mid-July to the end of August. Tickets cost between $9 and $30; all seats are reserved. Sometimes tickets are available for that day's performance, because people who buy blocks of seats turn them in at the last minute. But often it is sold out by March or before. At present, weekend seats are sold out but tickets are available for weeknights. The 1986 performances will be held between July 9 and Aug. 28; to get a reservation form, send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to: Festival of Arts, PO Box 1659, Laguna Beach, Calif. 92652, or call (714) 494-1145.

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