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Close-Up on Laguna at 85th Annual Pageant of the Masters


It’s hot in the afternoon, but as the sun begins to drop you head toward the cool dusk of a natural amphitheater known as the Irvine Bowl. Nestled at the base of Laguna Canyon, a brief walk from the Pacific, you settle in for the 85th annual Pageant of the Masters.

What will you be seeing? Well, imagine a famous Old Master painting re-created with living people, right down to the background, props and clothing. The Pageant uses more than 150 volunteers to dress and populate more than two dozen artworks, and even with binoculars it’s hard to tell the difference between the original work and what’s happening onstage. Each grouping is up for 90 seconds, giving you time to watch for blinks and twitches (it’s unlikely you’ll see any) and take in the picture-perfect details.

And it’s not just Old Masters. This year, the Pageant’s theme is “Under the Sun.” It salutes its home, Laguna and more generally Southern California, with a fascinating retrospective ranging from a sculpture of 12,000-year-old Laguna Woman, whose fossilized remains were found in 1933, to orange crate art, to self-referential paintings like “William Wendt at Work,” to surf culture. The cover of the program features “Cutting Glass,” an oversize oil by Gary Prettyman showing Kelly Slater catching a wave; sure enough, the painting is perfectly captured by a dangling volunteer.

The Pageant’s second half features paintings and sculptures by Monet, Gauguin, Sargent and Louis Chalon, among others – artists who left their studios in search of inspiration. The show culminates in the famous “Last Supper,” da Vinci’s masterpiece, first enacted in 1936 and just as jaw-dropping today.

Most works appear when the curtain rises, but a few “backstage stories” leave the curtain up. Monet’s “Dejeuner sur l’Herbe,” for example, comes together while you watch: performers gather, are positioned and smoothed, lighting is adjusted and – poof! Knowing how it happens doesn’t diminish the awe you feel when it’s ready.

Standouts include two versions of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima, one utilizing 12-year-old girls (you’d never know), and the sun and fun represented in three works by Roger Kuntz with a perfectly matched medley of summer songs.

A full orchestra led by Pageant newcomer Corey Hirsch enriches the stories. Exceptional narration offers context and fascinating facts about the art, artists, times and places represented. Dan Duling has written the Pageant’s narration scripts for more than three decades, and he knows how to lead an audience from laughter to tears and back again, while teaching along the way. Director/Producer Diane Challis Davy is in her 23rd year making sure the artistry of the show matches that of the works it re-creates. Tech/Lighting Director Richard Hill, with 33 years on the job, helps to make the magic happen.

And it truly is magic, a not-to-be-missed SoCal experience that never disappoints, but rather grows in majesty and marvel. After it’s over, you drive north with the windows down, transitioning from the canyon to the freeway with dreams of Laguna past, present and future.

Irvine Bowl

Insider tips:

Buy your tickets online at The show runs through September 1 and discounts are available.

Bring binoculars! No matter where you sit, you’ll want to see more detail.

The show starts at 8:30. Arrive in Laguna early and stroll through town to the beach, then grab dinner at the Lumberyard, Las Brisas or other local spot.

Stop by the Festival of Arts Fine Art Show across Laguna Canyon Road — show your Pageant ticket for free admission all summer. The Sawdust Festival just to the north is a $9 admission, but worth it to see (and buy) unique arts and crafts. Both shows feature Laguna-based artists only.

Tie in a trip to the Laguna Art Museum, celebrating its 100th anniversary.

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Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen has lived in the Brookside neighborhood since 1993. She works as a freelance writer, editor and consultant. She's also a playwright affiliated with Theatre West.

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