The Comeuppance Smart Critic

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The Comeuppance of a Smart Critic

My late mother used to tell me affectionately, "Edward, you are smart," but then she would say, "But not enough." Truth be told, there were a number of occasions of late where she proved to be right, but we're talking here about art, not my personal life---aren't we?

For years my friends would suggest going to Laguna Beach to watch the Pageant of the Masters, and my response would be, "Not in my lifetime." Why would I subject myself to a tedious evening of sitting in a crowded theater, watching the recreation of famous paintings on stage? Yuck! Just thinking about these men and women, dressed in period costumes and stiffly holding poses to resemble the Apostles or some semi-nude goddesses, was enough to make me hide under the covers.

But last Sunday, I just couldn't say no. A good friend of mine was vacationing in Laguna Beach and asked me to join her for dinner, with the Pageant of the Masters to follow. In a moment of weakness, I agreed. Fortified by a good meal and a couple of drinks, we joined the throngs of happy pilgrims making their way into the picturesque outdoor amphitheater. The first pleasant surprise is to find a live orchestra in the pit. From the speakers comes the impossibly sonorous voice of the master of ceremonies, who remains hidden throughout the evening like the Wizard of Oz. The red velvet curtain parts slowly revealing a large screen with a projected image of a painting by American artist Thomas Hart Benton: a young man with a suitcase marches along the country road while waving goodbye to his parents---a lovely painting, indeed. I wait for the screen to disappear to reveal the expected tableaux vivant---a living picture made of actors recreating the composition. Instead, the stagehands remove the first image and roll onto the proscenium another one. I couldn't believe that I was fooled so easily! The painting was not projected after all. This and all subsequently presented paintings were actually painted on gigantic canvases with live actors and a few props affixed to the surface, creating the seamless illusion that everything was painted by the artist---the skies, the trees, the horses and even the people. My favorites were the recreation of paintings by Edward Hopper---especially his moody Nighthawks, with its lost souls, seen through the window of the corner diner. On a few welcome occasions, the audience was allowed to watch, as the painting was rolled onto the stage, with actors coming from the wings and stepping---literally---into the painting. The stagehands would help to arrange the folds of the ladies intricate dresses, as was the case in recreating the tableaux of the bustling street scene of Belle Epoch Paris. With everything seemingly set in place, something was still missing. And then it came---the very smart and carefully arranged theatrical lighting, completing the picture in a last stroke of magic. Even sitting relatively close to the stage, I couldn't help but buy into the illusion---hook, line and sinker.

While some recreations of the sculptures I found rather silly and embarrassing, the best of them---the stone mythological figures from the fa-ade of New York's Grand Central Terminal---were impeccable. God only knows how these semi-nude actors, in their heavy white makeup, could manage to hold these complicated poses for such an impossibly long time. Only one thing remains unchanged since the Pageant of the Masters began in the 1930's---the performance closes with the tableaux of Leonardo's Last Supper. At this point, late in the evening, I was a happy camper, clapping along with thousands of others. Driving home I thought, "What's wrong with me? I could have had this much fun year after year-- must be my punishment for being a snob." Again, Mom was right.

2005 Pageant of the Masters Through September 1st
Laguna Beach, CA
Tel. 800-487-3378