Thu, Aug 03, 2006 - Page 15 News List

The town where life imitates art

By Mireya Navarro  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , CALOFORNIA

Michael Ziegler, left, and fellow cast member Joy Shirkani-Monson, right, pictured in a recreation of The Dancers by Harriet Whitney Frishmuth during their performance in the Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach, California.

PHOTOS: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

For his nightly role in the sprawling Pageant of the Masters, Michael Ziegler disrobes and stands patiently for 45 minutes while a makeup artist paints his body silver from head to toe.

“I feel a little bit warm and greasy,” he said on a recent evening as he staggered cautiously out of a dressing room with his arms and legs wide apart so as not to smear the paint, like a horror-film mummy in G-string and flip-flops.

Yet after all that preparation, Ziegler, a 53-year-old airline customer service representative, goes onstage and does nothing. For 90 seconds, he stands utterly still — with one leg and arm outstretched, like the confederate across from him — in a re-creation of The Dancers, a bronze sculpture by a largely forgotten artist.

Is the tableau vivant passe? Not for the 155,000 fans who flock to this beachside town each summer for the pageant. For them, the two-month extravaganza — a US$4.1 million production that includes sets and lighting for nearly 40 art pieces on eight staging areas with live narration and orchestra – weaves a magic that is a welcome palliative to the freneticism of modern-day entertainment.

The Pageant of the Masters dates back to 1933, when a much smaller version was organized to publicize an arts festival featuring local artists, which is still held in tandem with the pageant each summer (this year from July 7 to Sept. 1.). Today the tableau vivant pageant has an all-volunteer cast of about 300, and over the years it has added themes, movement, singing and surprises — from a cowboy on a real horse to the uncorking of a 6m-tall champagne bottle — to maintain its appeal.

The pageant sells out all of its 61 shows and generates about US$1.8 million for local arts programs, exhibitions and scholarships, said Anita Mangels, president of the pageant board. It has been so successful that the main struggle, at times a source of acrimony among board members, has been to keep it in Laguna Beach and fend off offers to franchise it.

“It's an indescribable art form that one must see to appreciate,” Mangels said. “Part of what makes it unique is that you can only see it in its original setting two months a year.”

From the 2,600 seats in the Irvine Bowl, the amphitheater where the pageant is presented under often starry skies, what the audience takes in is in some respect a trick of the eye. For the re-creation of paintings, humans are positioned to take the place of characters in reproductions than can be as big as 10m wide and 4m high. The models are then made two-dimensional by lighting and the elimination of shadows.

As sets are rolled in and out, the models are sometimes shown taking their positions in semidarkness. The stage darkens completely, and then the lights go on to reveal the models frozen inside the frame.

Gasps are often heard from the audience as the scene is illuminated. Ninety seconds later the set goes dark again and the image is gone, as ephemeral as lightning.

“It's never relaxed,” said Diane Challis Davy, the pageant's director since 1996. “If one person in the chain is not doing the job, it can have disastrous effects.”

This year's theme is A Passion for Art, with a lineup of 38 tableaus, including love-themed paintings like The Suitor's Visit (around 1658) by the Dutch realist painter Gerard ter Borch, The Stolen Kiss by Fragonard and lusty sculptures like Rodin's Eternal Spring, as well as posters, prints and pendants honoring such aids to love as perfume and alcohol. The one departure from the theme, but a constant from year to year, is the finale, Leonardo's Last Supper, in which — in a coincidental nod to Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code — the role of John has for years been played by a woman.

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