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Still-Life Onstage, Bedlam Backstage

What stirs the souls of those in the Pageant of the Masters' art reproductions?

July 05, 2001|VIVIAN LETRAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a novelty act rarely produced anywhere outside Southern California, the Pageant of the Masters mixes high art and ample kitsch.

Visitors from throughout California and beyond flock each summer to the Irvine Bowl, an outdoor amphitheater in Laguna Beach, for two months of sold-out shows. When the curtain goes up, the music swells and a narrator sets the scene in a booming voice. The performers stand stock-still for 90 seconds in tableaux that imitate works of art. Their poses range from the apostles in Da Vinci's "The Last Supper" to the space aliens in posters from such sci-fi movies as "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and "The Invasion of the Saucer Men." It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but no one can deny that the pageant is an enduring tradition. It has played in Orange County since 1935 with few interruptions and in recent years has netted an average of $4.3 million annually in ticket sales.

"It's a variety show in the best sense of the word," says the show's director, Diane Challis Davy. "And at the same time, it's preserving the original idea of what living pictures are all about."

The theme for the 69th pageant is "Beyond the Horizon," a survey of the world's frontiers on land, in the sea and in space, from the American West to the Himalayas to Galaxy X. But behind the onstage vistas there's a wild and woolly frontier ripe for exploration: backstage.

This week a motley crew of artisans, volunteers and technicians is in the last phase of months of preparation. In the final days before Saturday's opening they are hustling like crazy to make the show picture-perfect.

Here's a peek into the mad workshop of the hundreds of people--mostly volunteers--whose works will coalesce into tableaux vivants , sketching scenes by Winslow Homer, Paul Gauguin, Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet and Toulouse-Lautrec.

The McDermott family of Mission Viejo is among the legions of volunteer actors. Dozens of families sign up each year, hoping all will be cast, resulting in a summer of unforgettable togetherness.

By the time the last curtain goes down, the four McDermotts will have clocked at least 800 volunteer hours.

Most of that time is spent either scrambling or dying of discomfort.

Actors check in and wait for their calls for wardrobe and makeup, which can take up to an hour. Costumers and makeup artists painstakingly apply heavy makeup; in some cases they use body paint on the performers.

After actors are loaded into their sets, they are strapped in with safety harnesses and rolled out on stage. There, directors position them and recheck them carefully before the curtain goes up.

Runners scurry to fetch laggers so that no cues are missed.

"People on staff are running around in a panic. There's a lot of rush, rush, rush to get you on the set, and then you get to rest a few minutes before it's your turn on stage," says matriarch Donna McDermott, 41.

She will appear as a hideous Himalayan demon-god, sitting atop a water buffalo with skulls on her headpiece in "Dharmapalas," a gilt bronze by an unknown artist. Her husband Pat, 39, will be a Spanish conquistador with a pointy beard, puffy pants, tights and a sword in "The Discoverer," an oil painting by N.C. Wyeth. Son Taylor, 12, whose real-life hair is a 2-inch wall of Bed Head wax and hair gel, will don a red turban and an "Arabian Nights"-style costume for "View From Under the Portico of Dayr-el-Medeeneh, Thebes," a lithograph by David Roberts. Daughter Kylie, 11, will be Geisha No. 7, wearing a kimono and chopsticks in her hair in "Reception for a Visiting Nobleman," a woodblock print by Eiri Rekisentei.

The actors are told not to drink or eat while in costume. Pat McDermott isn't allowed to sit in his outfit, so he stands for hours waiting his turn on stage.

After Kylie's makeup is applied, it starts to get drier and drier. At times she can barely move her lips. Enter Mom with a cool soft drink; she draws the straw up to Kylie's mouth for a few seconds of blissful relief.

Thirst is curable. But the uncomfortable itches created by the cumbersome costumes are impossible to scratch.

And then there's the mental fatigue. Between the twitches and the frantic moments, there are long periods of downtime. The family catches up on homework, crossword puzzles and novels. The kids have learned new card games and how to play chess.

"There's a lot of waiting time before they roll you on stage," Donna McDermott says.

But it's all worth it.

"We thought it was a good way for the family to spend time together this summer," Donna McDermott says. "Our kids are getting older and pretty soon it's not going to be cool to hang out with mom and dad anymore, so we're taking this opportunity to be doing this with them."

*

People call them dangerous. But sculptors Judith Parker of Lake Forest and Lyle Brooks of Laguna Beach say they are simply handy with their steely knives. They wield them with samurai speed as pieces of foam fall away like flakes of snow.

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