Some time in the 13th century, in the middle of what would become Germany, lay the cozy little village of Hamelin. The citizens of this small town were colorful and joyous, a natural symptom of living in a place so pleasant. Call it earnestness, call it naivete, or just call it happiness. Whatever it was that caused the gaiety in Hamelin always remained, until the arrival of a few hundred rats and an enigmatic musician, named the Pied Piper, who claimed to have the solution to the infestation.
Now imagine that with kickass Italian puppets.
Exciting, right? The Carlo Colla and Sons Marionette Company is responsible for reformatting this classic fairy tale for the stage. The story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin has been recounted and rewritten for centuries, most famously by the Brothers Grimm, so it's a little surprising a marionette company hasn't taken a shot at the legend of the Ratcatcher.
What may be more surprising is that marionette theater is a weirdly suitable channel for this accidently disturbing story. "The marionnettes speak in metaphor," says puppeteer Piero Corbella, in reference to the way a marionnette play is structured. Given the plurality of interpretations one can take from a story about a magical rat-and-child-stealing fife player (like war, plagues, or a simple allegory for keeping a promise), an object that can talk in symbolism will say more than a person.
But, how did a group of puppeteers take a short fairy tale and stretch it out into an hour and a half play? It's all thanks to the last member of the Colla family to be involved with the marionette company, artistic director Eugenio Monti Colla, who passed away in November. According to Corbella, Colla "had to think, to study, to understand why it was written, why the Brothers Grimm decided to write it." His research forced him to grasp every nuance behind The Pied Piper of Hamelin, and to expand upon the simpler ideas (like the ecstatic atmosphere in the village). With the addition of the marionettes, the final product matches and fleshes out the fantasy of the original story.
The painted sets in the background are reminiscent of the early days of musical theater. They're colorful and layered, cartoony and dense. The Pied Piper is a labor of love for the folks at Carlo Colla and Sons. Almost everything from the hand-carved puppets to the hand-painted sets is embedded with the marionette company's thumb print. "The people that will come to Charleston to perform the plays are the same people that spend 12 months every year working on the production," says Corbella. "We carve the marionnettes, we realize the dresses, we realize the scenery."
The look of the play is a spectacle. Puppets dance around the stage, ranging from cute to grotesque. The townsfolk move in jovial twitches, while the black-clad Piper stands statuesque, until he performs his mysterious and hypnotizing songs.
Carlo Colla and Sons' interpretation of The Pied Piper has been noted for the excessive amount of marionettes it uses. This includes over 100 puppets, plus 300 rat puppets that assault the stage. Being the professionals that they are, Piero assures us that there has never been any trouble performing the play. "We are a group of 15 people that work together for many, many days," he says. "So, everyone knows what to do."
Carlo Colla and Sons Marionette Company has a storied history that dates back to the 19th century. They have put together marionette renditions of opera and ballet, and, currently, fairy tale plays like Ali Baba, Hansel and Gretel, and The Pied Piper. The Pied Piper heads to the Emmett Robinson Theatre during Spoleto this year. Learn more online at spoletousa.org