Last year, the Pageant of the Masters honored movie history with its production "The Big Picture." But this summer's offering, "The Art Detective," may surpass that effort in terms of combining high art with the aura of the multiplex.
The first clue of that Hollywood sensibility comes with the opening words of a title projected on the Irvine Bowl stage. A montage of World War II headlines is followed by the caption "In a world at war, art is under siege" — and those first three words have become so associated with movie-trailer voiceovers (just say something like "In a world where machines have taken over the human race, only one man stands in the way of annihilation" in your manliest voice) that a recent comedy about voiceover artists took "In a World..." as its title.
Then, before the first tableau appears, the Pageant tosses out another movie-thriller staple: font that appears in mock-typewriter style, declaring "Amsterdam, Holland, 1939." From there on, heroes, villains and adventurers dominate. In the first segment of "The Art Detective," we learn about art owners who tried, not always successfully, to shield their prizes from the Nazis, and also about Adolf Hitler's dream of a grand Fuhrermuseum that would show off Germany's art collection.
The notion of sinister forces plotting to seize an object of beauty has provided the framework for countless movies, to the point where Alfred Hitchcock once coined the term "MacGuffin" to indicate any desired item — a ring, a jewel, a statuette — that shapes characters' motives. The bittersweet theme of much of "The Art Detective" is that art itself can be a MacGuffin, and even a genocidal dictator can swoon at a painting's beauty and put lives at risk to obtain it.
"The Art Detective" is most exhilarating when it examines this irony: namely, that gorgeous artworks, which represent the peak of refinement and civilization, often inspire emotions that represent humanity at its worst. Another segment of the show focuses on the infamous 1990 heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, with live actors playing the burglars who posed as police officers to gain entrance (the stolen works remain lost, with empty frames at the museum poignantly awaiting their return).
If art's fate can be a mystery, so can its origin. An early part of the show focuses on Audrey Munson, an early 20th century model and silent-film actress who posed for many famous sculptures, including the USS Maine National Monument in New York's Central Park, only to fade into anonymity for decades. An artwork's journey can be murky as well — as in the case of Edmonia Lewis' statue "The Death of Cleopatra," which went from an unveiling in Philadelphia in 1876 to a saloon, a racehorse's headstone and, ultimately, a Chicago contractor's storage yard.
And sometimes, apparently, art is meant to remain a mystery, at least to mortal eyes. The first act of "The Art Detective" closes with another cinematic set piece, this one about the British excavators who broke into King Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922 and, as the Pageant's voiceover narration notes, brought light into the rooms for the first time in millennia.
Just as "The Big Picture" ranged from recreations of silent-movie stills to paintings or sculptures that inspired films, "The Art Detective" approaches the theme of mystery from varying angles. In some cases, the works have a noirish subject matter — as with a stage poster for "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," a Sherlock Holmes statue and a section on Hollywood pulp thrillers that features tongue-in-cheek narration and an actor in a Humphrey Bogart-style trench coat.
These segments are amusing but less gripping than the other material, if only because their fictional mysteries invite less pondering than the real-life heists and entombments. In all cases, though, the tableaux are astonishing, and a scene in which the crew sets up Emanuel Leutze's "Washington Crossing the Delaware" before cuing the stage lighting shows what a remarkable sleight of hand the production is.
As with most Pageant shows, the current one ends with Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper," and it turns out that this image has a survival tale as well: During World War II, the painting resided behind sandbags and scaffolding to protect it from bombing. Sometimes those barricades, or smart work by security guards, are what keeps the cultural past alive. In a world like ours, that's just how it goes.
If You Go
What: "The Art Detective"
Where: Pageant of the Masters, 650 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach
When: 8:30 p.m. daily through Aug. 30
Cost: $15 to $220
Information: (949) 497-6582 or http://www.foapom.com