"But in her 16th year, pricking her finger — to death will bring her, in this castle here!" shouts the fairy Misery, raising her arms above her head as two large snakes coil behind her and the royal court drops their heads to their hands in dismay. By the time we're 30 minutes into Sleeping Beauty, we have forgotten that Misery and everyone else on stage is a marionette.
Standing almost three feet tall, Carlo Colla & Sons Marionette Co.'s intricately crafted puppets appear as lifelike as any real humans on stage. "Everyone immediately understands the marionette," says Piero Corbella, general manager of Milan-based Colla & Sons. "This is a universal language."
Colla & Sons Marionette Co. has been telling stories since the late 1700s, although marionettes have been around since ancient Egypt. "It is more simple for marionettes than for humans to arrive at the heart of the people," says Corbella. He lists some of the countries in which the company performs — Germany, France, Japan, China — and says that even when these plays are performed in Italian, audiences worldwide love the puppets.
Sleeping Beauty is even more accessible for English-speaking viewers as Scottish actors provide the soundtrack for each character's voice. Spoleto marks the third time this show has been performed in English in America; its 2013 premiere in New York drew rave reviews.
Corbella says that director Eugenio Monti Colla chose to tell the story based off of Charles Perrault's version of the classic fairy tale, The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood, because it has a "different kind of thinking about the fable," than the later Brothers Grimm version.
While some aspects of this play diverge from Perrault's plot, including the use of a rose rather than a spinning wheel to prick Princess Aurora's finger, the story mainly rides the road of tradition. Corbella would probably disagree, but we think the marionettes do, in fact, have some limitations, made evident in their, er, wooden movements. Ultimately, these limitations lead to quirky character moments and we laugh, reinforcing the light-hearted nature of the performance. After all, a barking puppet dog is probably the cutest thing we'll find at Spoleto this year.
With more than 100 marionettes and 10 different scenery backdrops, Sleeping Beauty is visually stunning (we got a sneak preview with a previously recorded show). The characters come to life through string-directed hand and head motions as they glide across the stage. While the strings are slightly visible, the lighting and sound are distracting enough to cause these thin threads to fade into the background. Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty score accompanies the marionettes, amplifying their ethereal quality.
Although Colla & Sons turns to the classical music great for an assist, every other detail is taken care of by their own hands. "The person that realized the marionette and carved the wood, the person that realizes the dress, the person who makes the wigs with the real hairs, it is all realized by us," says Corbella.
Corbella knows a lot about marionettes, having worked with them since the age of 12. "It was beautiful to grow up like this," he says. "My first experience with theater was not with actors but with puppeteers." Corbella describes his work with marionettes as "play." "The children [in the audience] love the lights and the color, and the adults are delighted by what the characters say and do," he says.
"To be enchanted, you need to see it live," he adds. "You enter their world. They create the space around them. You forget they are marionettes."