PAGEANT REVIEW : Face to Face With Living Masterpieces : Re-creations: Laguna Beach's annual Pageant of the Masters is a surreal, sometimes quirky but undeniably mesmerizing tribute to great artworks.

Smeared with blue-green greasepaint, a naked young woman stands posed on stage while Tony the Tiger tells an audience that the "uninhibited freedom" of her orgiastic cult is "pure and radiant."

Has some kind of smutty pagan/cornflake performance art taken over Laguna Beach's Irvine Bowl? Nope, it's just the Pageant of the Masters in a neoclassical moment, waxing idyllic about a bronze sculpture of a maenad that once decorated a private fountain.

With Thurl Ravenscroft, the voice of the cereal-pitching tiger, providing narration, the 57th annual edition of the "living pictures" show unfolded Saturday, a surreal melange of art and stagecraft, pretentious, kitschy, sometimes cloying and--undeniably--mesmerizing.

Using live models to pose in blown-up, brilliant copies of paintings, sculpture and decorative arts, the pageant inevitably produces a spectacle. The re-creations are like a television screen or a train wreck: It's nearly impossible to take one's eyes off them.

They display a virtuosity in almost every theatrical craft. In fact, the pageant is a theater technician's fantasy land: It is perhaps the only production in which the skills of set painters, costumers, makeup experts and lighting technicians literally take center stage, free from the shackles of a playwright's script or an actor's ego.

However, since it lacks any dramatic content, the pageant's impact is as ephemeral as a fireworks display.

In choosing their repertoire, pageant directors carefully sift the artistic heritage of the world to remove anything remotely disturbing or challenging, leaving little but a collection of pleasant decorations.

Instead, the pageant's 23-piece program leans heavily on sentimental paintings by obscure 19th- and 20th-Century artists, along with a smattering of historical artifacts and more familiar works. This year's survey of famous art includes a Monet, a Matisse and Emanuel Leutze's "Washington Crossing the Delaware."

Pop art is represented by Jules Cheret's fin de siecle posters for a Parisian ice skating rink. Tex-Mex sculptor Luis Jimenez is the token modern artist included, while exotica is handled with a display of antique Japanese festival dolls. The affair closes with the pageant's traditional finale, Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper."

The program moves more briskly than would be seemly in any museum; a few minutes of Ravenscroft's reading Dan Duling's reasonably informative script, a few minutes of eye strain to see if the models are breathing, and on to the next piece. No time here to contemplate the eternal verities of the muses.

On the other hand, one does have two hours to contemplate how they make a three-dimensional reality look like a two-dimensional painting trying to look like a three-dimensional reality. There's room in the world for at least one Pageant of the Masters.

The Pageant of the Masters runs through Aug. 26 at the Irvine Bowl, 650 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Information: (714) 494-1145 .

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