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STILL DEVELOPING : The Masters May Be Frozen in Time, but That Doesn't Mean the Pageant Has to Be

July 07, 1994|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | Benjamin Epstein is a free-lance writer who contributes frequently to the Times Orange County.

After six decades of staying as still as humanly possible, things are really starting to move at the Pageant of the Masters. The pageant, in which live models re-create works of art, runs Friday through Aug. 29 at Irvine Bowl in Laguna Beach.

As always, the show ends with Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper." But it opens with a series of posters from 1915 to 1928 featuring Buster Keaton and other silent comedians, and director Glen Eytchison hinted that one of the characters again just might emerge from his poster.

"I feel that as long as 'The Last Supper' is still there, it's OK to experiment with things that people might feel are inappropriate," Eytchison explained. "Last year, the show opened with a series of magic posters in which the magicians stepped out of the tableaux and performed the tricks the posters portrayed.

"The idea is to broaden the concept of what is and isn't acceptable," he said. "If we're going to attract a new audience and be competitive, we've got to grow and change, try new things. Some will work; some won't."

The pageant's 61st season boasts almost two dozen tableaux and series. Among other unusual offerings are scenes from Buddhist temples of Japan re-created on the main stage and hillside locations, and a dish, a comb and a clock: a Charles X clock, a gold Scythian comb from the 2nd Century BC and a silver Persian hunting dish from the year 309. (How'd they pin that date down?)

All of which raises the question, what are the pageant's limits? Could one of those Where's-Waldos-from-hell types by 15th-Century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch be staged, for instance?

"We have two primary physical limitations," Eytchison explained. "The height of the proscenium, 12-foot-8, and the size and shape of human beings. A Bosch painting would have a whole bunch of characters who are physically distorted and in really unusual positions. I only found one Bosch we were capable of reproducing, and it wasn't very well received.

"Of course, I often put things in that I think the audience may not like very much. Magritte, Picasso . . . ."

The audience doesn't like Picasso?

"If you see a painting by Renoir of two beautiful women on a boat on a lake, it's pleasant; it's pretty, not very challenging," said Eytchison, at the helm for 16 years. "In other words, commercial. Picasso or Matisse were not concerned about being perfect in their representations of humans. Characters look distorted, and that's less commercially acceptable to our audience.

"But they're refreshing, and they're used to break up all the prettiness of the show. Pretty gets boring unless you break it up. The idea is variety, in subject matter, in medium, in time period and composition, even the tempo of the music that accompanies the art."

Indeed, the news this year isn't all visual. Festival grounds were threatened by, but ultimately spared, damage from the Laguna Canyon firestorm last fall, but the orchestra pit, makeup and wardrobe areas and production offices fell victim to a mudslide two weeks later. Damage estimates topped $500,000; reconstruction was completed by Feb. 1.

Somewhat less catastrophic, but news nonetheless, "Voice of the Pageant" Thurl Ravenscroft has retired after two decades. Ravenscroft, who was also the voice of Kellogg's Tony the Tiger for four decades, will be replaced by another basso , Skip Conover.

All money earned by the pageant and the Festival of Arts--the festival features exhibits by 160 artists and artisans, a Junior Art gallery, workshops, demonstrations and entertainment at the same location--goes back into the community in the form of grants and scholarships, about $150,000 annually, in the arts.

"And of course there's rent," Eytchison said. Annual lease payments to Laguna Beach have approached $500,000 in recent years.

"We've been working 20 hours a day here," he said. "The pageant is a lot technique, but mostly it's dedicated and loyal volunteers and staff who don't go home until it's right. What you won't find is someone who stands up and says, 'It's 11 o'clock; I'm going to take a union coffee break. I've worked all over the country, and I've never seen anything like it."

What: Pageant of the Masters.

When: Nightly at 8:30 p.m., Friday, July 8, through Aug. 29.

Where: Irvine Bowl Park, 650 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach.

Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) or Santa Ana (5) Freeway to the Laguna (133) Freeway and head south through Laguna Canyon. Shuttle buses run continuously until midnight from Laguna Canyon lots and downtown parking areas.

Wherewithal: $10 to $40.

Where to call: (714) 497-6582.

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