When I interviewed Piero Corbella, manager of Milan-based Carlo Colla & Sons' marionette company, he told me that I could only really know what Sleeping Beauty was like by seeing it in person. Last night I found him backstage, shook his hand, and nodded rapidly while repeating, "You were right. It was so beautiful."
The painstakingly created sets were almost too precious, but this fragility was fit for a fairy tale. And the marionettes were even more delicate, rendered in such a way that they each bore fitting facial expressions (and gorgeous wardrobes). I cannot say that they were so lifelike as to convince me to see some sort of humanity in them, but they were pretty damn impressive.
The soundtrack (Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty score) and the pre-recorded voices (actors from the U.K. spoke in an English/Scottish accent) flowed seamlessly. My sister prodded me during intermission and asked if each puppeteer voiced each character. She was impressed by the truth: Timing is everything. Each marionette moved and "spoke" to the soundtrack.
This is the third time the play has been performed in English, and remembering Corbella's insistence that its universal appeal transcends language, I tried to imagine Sleeping Beauty in Italian. I wasn't quite convinced. The play gets an A from me because it comes together at the convergence of its humor, its design, and its overall appeal. I would not have laughed if I didn't hear the lines spoken in English. I respected the craftmanship in front of me and the story itself was entertaining as told by the high-pitched voices of nervous maids, the screeches of an evil fairy, and the stuttering silliness of fairy Harmony's tiny aids. But I just don't know if, sans one of those perfectly placed puzzle pieces, this performance would be as enjoyable. Perhaps that's just the delicate nature of a really solid performance.
Sleeping Beauty isn't as kid-friendly as I presumed — just because it's, you know, a fairy tale. I knew the barking dog (Puff, woof) would be fun to watch, and the audience — from small children to the elderly — went nuts when he flew onto the stage. It's refreshing to see an entire theater gasp in delight at a fake dog. But other than Puff, and the silly fairy's assistants, oh, and the snakes (did I mention the snakes? They slither in front of fairy Misery in a cloud of smoke that fades into the audience, causing a few coughs and sneezes), the play was too long for kids. The intermission seemed unnecessary, especially because it came after the first five acts, preceding the final two.
The final act of the play was entirely unnecessary, but it was so fun that I was glad I got to watch others watching it. The audience thoroughly enjoyed this final scene in which characters from other fairy tales — Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, and more — danced across the stage in a theatrical ode to classic tales. I was disturbed by the Beauty and the Beast rendition (in which the Beast has Belle on a rope and pulls at her neck) and the hunter shooting the wolf from Little Red Riding Hood (they warn you of the shotgun sound in posters before entering the theater), but the rest of the characters were a cute nod to familiar stories.
I would recommend this play to anyone, but I would suggest taking an older kid who could both appreciate the sensory delights of the play while at the same time understanding the human mechanisms behind it — because the puppeteers are the real stars of the show. When the curtain raises, they stand above the scenery, engulfed in strings and lights. The audience gave them a standing ovation, and I shot out of my seat to join them.