Friday, November 15, 2013

The world on a string at ArtsEmerson

There is something about the miniature that always charms - just as the mechanical exudes its own tiny tug of fascination. Entwine them together, and you're halfway toward explaining the allure of the marionette, and particularly the puppet avatars of the Colla Marionette company, an Italian institution whose pint-sized production of Sleeping Beauty (above) plays through this weekend at ArtsEmerson.

As you can see, the Collas kick it old-school when it comes to puppets; lavishly old-school, in fact (their hand-carved courtiers sport the finest silks and pearls). Still, their version of the famous fairy tale doesn't always hew to tradition. There's no poisoned spindle here, for instance (Princess Aurora pricks her finger on a blood-red rose), and the plot is convoluted by the addition of a trio of "sylphs" (sidekicks of the good fairy Harmony) who aid Prince Desire in his battle against the bad fairy Misery. The traditional sexual subtexts of the tale are likewise elided - indeed, in a strange staging choice, the climactic, awakening kiss is barely noticeable in the far distance.

So the adaptation, by director Eugenio Monti Colla, is generally less than streamlined (and its translation is sometimes stilted), which at first shines a spotlight on what even the most beautifully crafted marionettes can't really do - in a word, dialogue.  Luckily there's a lot of Tchaikovsky on the soundtrack to distract us from the declamatory longeurs of the first act.  (Which works wonderfully until the marionettes dance along; ballet is also not a puppet specialty.)

Princess Aurora falls into her famous sleep.

But once the Collas get down to business with special effects, tricks of perspective, and delightfully shifting scenery, Sleeping Beauty becomes strangely compelling.  Indeed, there are many ravishing - even whimsically eerie - images to savor here, from the "long shot" of Aurora's castle being engulfed by thorns (the elaborate sets and evocative lighting are by Franco Citterio), to the slithering grace of Misery's pet pythons, or the luminous cloud-scapes sprinkled with downward-drifting leaves.  And if the Collas haven't quite cracked the challenges of puppet ballet, they have mastered the trick of making their marionettes seemingly walk and gesture of their own accord (no small feat when every move is hanging by a thread - for the Collas rarely stray into un-strung puppetry).

To be honest, your child (inner or outer) may still get a little sleepy in Sleeping Beauty, as much of its beauty is essentially static - at least until the finale, when a posse of other fairy tale characters (in a second lift from Tchaikovsky) parades through Aurora's nuptials.  Here we encounter a delightful Red Riding Hood (with Woodsman and Wolf in hot pursuit), along with Puss in Boots, Snow White and her Seven Dwarves, and other revelers (including a prancing pony that literally kicks up its heels; another pet puppy can avidly wag its tail).  Here the Tchaikovsky was all but overwhelmed by squeals of delight from the audience - which gave me the distinct impression that a new generation of marionette fans had just been born.

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