'The Pied Piper’s' strings get tangled in its baffling tone 

I have so many questions

At one point or another, in our lives of consuming the arts in its plethora of forms, we have all stepped out of the theatre/ exhibition space/ music venue and just thought to ourselves, “What the hell did I just watch?” Sometimes that feeling is caused by watching a David Lynch example of weird, sometimes it’s stirred up by art film pretension, and sometimes it’s from something that’s just grotesque and disturbing.

This brings us to The Pied Piper, a perplexing hour and a half of puppet theatre presented by the Italian marionette company Carlo Colla and Sons. It’s neither pretentious, weird, or grotesque, but still left me scratching my head at what exactly it was going for.

And let’s be clear: “perplexing” isn’t code for awful. There are some things to like, especially if you’ve got a kid and money to spend on Spoleto tickets. The hand painted backdrops are gorgeous, the marionette acting is finely performed (I think), and there are a few humorous moment peeking through the cracks.

The confusion that pervades most of the performance is a product of the play’s own inability to pick a tone or target audience. The Pied Piper’s marketed towards children in the simplest sense — it’s playful, has a moral that’s explained to the audience at the end, and it’s rife with cartoonish imagery. So why were no kids in the audience laughing? Why were the adults in the crowd the ones that seemed to have the most fun? How much of this was supposed to be a comedy? If so, why weren’t jokes strung throughout the play? Is this a parable? If so, why the hell was there no mention of a moral except for the beginning and end?

I still can’t figure out if its even really supposed to be a comedy, and that’s proof enough of its lack of cohesion.

The 90 minute play is based on a Brothers Grimm story that’s only a handful of pages long, and it shows. There’s simply not enough story to fill the time frame. The plot just doesn’t know when to walk and when to run, and it affects the play’s sense of tension. Most plot points, like the Piper’s introduction or Hans’ (the de facto hero) decision to leave Hamelin forever, are done seemingly on a whim.

Carlo Colla and Sons didn’t use the negative space in any constructive way to develop strong central characters, or flesh out the plot. Without that, we’re left with a thin attempt at social commentary on generation lines, drawn out dialogue, and unnecessary musical numbers.

Marionette theatre’s a perfectly fitting avenue for a fairy tale, but the play would have benefitted from shortening up the plot— or maybe doing an anthology of a few different Brothers Grimm stories in one performance.

Some of the attempts at complexity, like the Pipers’ moral ambiguity for the majority of the play and Hans’ love of nature, are appreciated, but never explored in meaningful ways.

Taken on its surface, The Pied Piper is a suitable work for kids or marionette enthusiasts. The skills of the puppeteers are great, the puppets are beautifully carved, and those 300 rat puppets that were talked about so much before the performance met the hype. Try to get a spot as close to the stage as possible to fully appreciate the best aspects of the play. Just don’t expect a plot.

The Pied Piper, Sat. May 26 (12 p.m.), Sat. May (5 p.m.), Sun. May 27 (12 p.m.), $25-$55, Emmett Robinson Theatre, 54 St. Phillip St., (843) 953-6306.

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