Regional Theater Review: THE ART DETECTIVE (The Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach, CA)

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by Tony Frankel on August 1, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


On March 18, 1990, two young men dressed as Boston police officers walked unchallenged into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Some 81 minutes later, after tying up security guards in the basement, they had taken 2 objets d’art and 11 major paintings—including 3 of Rembrandt’s works—with a total value of approximately $500 million. The works were not insured. Even with a recent break in the case and a $5 million reward, the irreplaceable masterpieces have not been found.

Re-creation of Vermeer's THE CONCERT for Pageant of the Masters' THE ART DETECTIVE, 2014.

Among the heisted treasures was the most valuable painting ever stolen and one of only 36 paintings by Johannes Vermeer that still exists: The Concert (c. 1664). I wonder if I should alert the FBI that I, along with 2,600 other lucky souls, found this elegant depiction of domestic music-making in Laguna Beach last night. Well, sort of. While the empty frame that held The Concert still hangs on the Gardner Museum’s wall awaiting its return, The Pageant of the Masters re-created this gorgeous work as part of this year’s The Art Detective.

Pageant Poser Paul Goldie helps Faith Vanzant with her pose for Vermeer's THE CONCERT.

For those who don’t know, the Pageant, now in its 80th year, is a singularly unique entertainment that has perfected the art of tableaux vivants (“living pictures”). A different theme is selected each year. With over 600 volunteers (including actors and a research team) and world-class designers, this elegant and classy outfit—equal parts museum, play, concert, and lecture—re-creates for seated spectators at the Irvine Bowl classical and contemporary paintings, sculptures, and other works of art.

Re-creation of John Singer Sargent's EL JALEO for Pageant of the Masters' THE ART DETECTIVE, 2014.

The imagination of Director/Producer Diane Challis Davy, who in her 19th season still retains a keen eye and a sense of pure showmanship, never runs dry. With The Art Detective, Davy understands our fascination with crime and mystery; she dug into recent headlines, television, and movies as inspiration for the story behind the art—or missing, stolen, confiscated, and misplaced art as the case may be. Dan Duling, Pageant scriptwriter for 34 years, incorporates storytelling and fascinating facts to elucidate and contextualize the story behind these sumptuous masterpieces with humor, sophistication, and insight. Narrator Richard Doyle is a master at keeping the material fresh.

Re-creation of John Singer Sargent's EL JALEO for Pageant of the Masters' THE ART DETECTIVE, 2014.

With John Elg’s 28-member orchestra playing mainly original music written and scored like a glorious Hollywood blockbuster film, part of the fun is discovering what’s in store as it happens; I would go so far as to suggest you veer from looking at the program beforehand—the element of surprise when the darkened stage suddenly becomes a life-size painting usually elicits chills of awe for me.

Paul Goldie poses volunteers for Landseer's WINDSOR CASTLE for The Pageant of the Masters' THE ART DETECTIVE.Ultimately, the Pageant is positively one of the most sumptuous, creative, thrilling, inspiring, and satisfying evenings you will ever have in the theater…well, amphitheater. This event includes aspects of all arts, including multi-media and stage effects, culminating in a theatrical experience more moving, more charming, more educational, and more unexpected than most plays or musicals you will ever see.

With over 40 individual works of the utmost quality, professionalism, and magnificence, it’s best for me to concentrate on but a few. As I’ve said before, it’s amazing that a single viewing of so many wondrous creations doesn’t bring on Stendhal syndrome, a psychosomatic disorder (dizziness, fainting, and confusion) caused by looking at too much beautiful art.

Re-creation of Rembrandt's THE NIGHT WATCH for Pageant of the Masters' THE ART DETECTIVE, 2014.

The film Monuments Men spurred the idea to present works which were either stolen spoils of war or hidden for safety during WWII: Enormously impressive in scope and accuracy by the Pageant, you will gasp at Rembrandt’s The Nightwatch (1642)—one of the world’s most famous paintings known for its titanic dimensions, the brilliant use of chiaroscuro (light and shadow), and the perception of motion—and Botticelli’s Primavera (1482), an allegorical work depicting mythological figures in a garden which to this day remains subjective in meaning.

Re-creation of Boticelli's PRIMAVERA for Pageant of the Masters' THE ART DETECTIVE, 2014.

This A.S.I. team (Art Scene Investigators) also explores and uncovers intriguing obscurities. Who is that muse for A. Stirling Calder’s Star Figure, which was created for the 1915 Pan Pacific Exposition in San Francisco? Turns out it is the same model for that well-known Central Park gilt-bronze statue, Piccirilli’s The Maine Monument (1913). The story of Audrey Munson, the first actress to appear naked on film, will boggle you. So will the rotating displays of “Egyptian Discoveries” on enormous turntables situated on either side of the audience; this section includes the Shrines of Ramses II and Nefertiti, leaving us to ponder the rightful owners of art of antiquity.

Re-creation of Benvenuto Cellini's SALTCELLAR for Pageant of the Masters' THE ART DETECTIVE, 2014.In 2010, the FBI estimated that theft, fraud, looting, and trafficking in stolen art and antiquities are crimes that surpass $6 billion a year in terms of value. Take for example Benvenuto Cellini’s Saliera (1540-1543). This gold and bejeweled salt cellar was stolen from Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum in 2003. Leading investigators were adamant that the object was pilfered for ransom by Albanian gangsters. Turns out it was a security-alarm salesman who buried it in the woods near his home. A cell-phone trace led to Saliera’s recovery in 2006. You can see what all the fuss is about when this 10 inch × 13.2 inch table sculpture, valued at roughly $60 million, is enlarged to enormous glory, enriched by spray-painted actors who never move a muscle during the 90-second display of Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, and Neptune, the god of the sea.

Every year without fail, one of the highlights is a glimpse into the making of these living paintings. There is the set painted with boggling accuracy inside a shadow box. Next, the actors—bewigged and body-painted (including shadows)—are posed by stage managers (sometimes, the detailed costumes are half-worn and half-painted on the set). Add Richard Hill’s superb lighting inside a gigantic frame, and Posing actors for the re-creation of Leutze's WASHINGTON CROSSING THE DELAWARE for Pageant of the Masters' THE ART DETECTIVE, 2014.the 3-D setting melts into a 2-D painting. The uncanny effect is unlike anything you will ever see (which explains the sold-out crowd even on a Monday night).

Normally, we get to watch the actors get into place on stage for one of the paintings, but The Art Detective delves deeper: It begins with a film in which the actor playing George Washington in Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) arrives for work and we witness the application of make-up (supervised under Allyson Doherty’s direction) and outfits (Mary LeVenture’s costume design is inventiveness on steroids). The camera follows the actor as he arrives from backstage. There, under ultraviolet light (successfully used during scene changes more this year than any other), Washington and his fellow passengers are accurately posed in all their historical inaccuracy and—voila—you just saved yourself a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Re-creation of Vermeer's ALLEGORY OF PAINTING for Pageant of the Masters' THE ART DETECTIVE, 2014.As usual, I was introduced to an artist previously unfamiliar to me: 19th-century sculptor Edmonia Lewis, daughter of an African American and Native American, succeeded in a field dominated by men. Her The Death of Cleopatra (1876) sits in the Smithsonian, but the Pageant gives this marble wonder a rightfully exquisite setting in moonlight.

My favorite section saluted David Hockney. Even with binoculars, I could not figure out how one actor, painted with sun-lit ripples in a swimming pool, weightlessly floated below another figure watching him in Portrait of an Artist (1972). In his attempts to solve the mystery of the photographic realism of Renaissance artists, Hockney wrote The Secret Knowledge, a book which asserts that mirrors, lenses, and other optics were employed. Proving his thesis, the Pageant presents incredibly vivid paintings by three Dutch Masters, including Vermeer’s Allegory of Painting (1665-67).

Certainly, dozens of examples from this evening, massive in its scope of art history, can be cited, but the end result is this: You will be inspired by the beauty that mankind is capable of producing and those who champion the preservation of that beauty. Pageant of the Masters will leave you with a bit of misty-eyed hope; that alone is worth the price of admission. You simply cannot find a better way to spend a summer night under the stars—and you don’t need a detective to figure that one out.

photos by Festival of the Arts/Rick Lang

The Art Detective
Pageant of the Masters
part of The Festival of the Arts
Irvine Bowl, 650 Laguna Canyon Road in Laguna Beach
scheduled to end on August 30, 2014
staged nightly at 8:30
for tickets, call 800.487.3378 or visit

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