NEW YORK — As a tiny boy, no more than a year old, Eugenio Monti Colla was already enthralled with the marionettes he watched from his little seat at Milan’s Teatro Gerolamo. At play, the toddler would imitate the puppeteers, pretending that random objects had strings, moving them as if they did. Or so the family story has it, and Carlo Colla & Sons Marionette Company had been the family business on his mother’s side for nearly 80 years by then.
He was 10 or 11 when he began to work in earnest with the company, but only 4 when he was first allowed to do something in performance, taking a sheep puppet from one side of the stage to the other. “Beautiful, beautiful,” Colla said in English the other afternoon, remembering.
Now 74 and the company’s longtime artistic director, he was in the green room of the off-Broadway New Victory Theater after a matinee of “Sleeping Beauty.” Based on the Charles Perrault fairy tale, the show is written and directed by Colla, who also designed the costumes and is the puppeteer for the story’s villain: the evil fairy Misery, who in a venomous fit of pique puts the curse on the newborn Princess Aurora. ArtsEmerson brings the production to the Paramount Center Mainstage Nov. 13-17, its only American stop outside New York.
“C’era una volta . . . ,” an ornately lettered panel reads as the performance begins, and a British-accented voice-over translates, “Once upon a time . . .” In an age when parents think nothing of diverting their infants with glowing touch screens, this “Sleeping Beauty” is old-fashioned entertainment: When the panel lifts, hand-carved wooden marionettes enact a classic story on a perspective set constructed of painted paper. Eleven puppeteers manipulate the show’s 165 marionettes, most of which are just under 3 feet tall.
“We create a reality in miniature,” Colla said afterward in Italian, as his fellow puppeteer, company manager Piero Corbella, interpreted for him.
Each marionette is made by the team of Colla puppeteers. The marionettes’ eyes are glass, the hair in their wigs real, and up close their painted faces give the impression of stage makeup, the features exaggerated to read from a distance. Like actors, they are cast and costumed in multiple productions. For “Sleeping Beauty,” the marionette portraying teenage Princess Aurora, suspended in slumber under the curse, has its eyes painted over so they won’t catch the light.
In the century and a half of the company’s existence, the craft of making the marionettes has evolved — partly, Corbella said, because of advances in lighting: Gas lamps illuminated less powerfully than electric bulbs do. In the mid-19th century, colors had to be bolder and costumes sparklier to stand out, but the carving could be less refined than it is now.
“So you have to do the sculpture with much more attention,” said Corbella, 51, who started with the company when he was 11. “You have to do the costumes with much more detail, because people can see them.”
The simple technology of the marionettes’ mobility has progressed, too, allowing greater movement of heads, eyes, hands, mouths. But the puppets vary in complexity according to what they’re required to do, and if they’re created as supernumeraries, like the palace cooks wordlessly carrying dishes for the feast in the first scene of “Sleeping Beauty,” they don’t need to have mouths that open.
The marionettes in this production were made for it in 2001, Corbella said, but the company has nearly 3,000 marionettes, 900 of them dated from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century. Storing them, 8,000 costumes, and hundreds of sets is the company’s biggest problem, he said, and one it has been working to solve since the 1990s with the city of Milan.
A promised new space, designed by British architect David Chipperfield and meant to accommodate a museum, a studio, and a school, is ready at last but empty, the company and the city unable to agree on cost, Corbella said. He insisted he is hopeful that the company will move in next year, but Colla scoffed. “This is a dream,” the artistic director said in English. “A dream.”
Ballets, fables, plays, and operas are all in the Colla company’s repertoire. In February, at Milan’s Fashion Week, the troupe marked Verdi’s bicentennial with a runway show of 80 marionettes dressed in costumes from its productions of the composer’s operas.
In some shows, Corbella said, old and new marionettes share the stage — a practical reason why the materials used to make them must remain the same. There is also the matter of tradition, handed down through five generations of Colla’s family. He is, by now, the only family member left in the company, but he said there is a possibility that one young cousin, still a child, will decide to join the troupe.
When Colla was a boy, he learned the craft by watching and doing. The older generations’ way of teaching did not involve verbal explanations. “Never, never,” he said in English.
But in the late 1950s, when Colla was a teenager, the company went dormant, its marionettes packed away in boxes. Then as now, entertainment was changing; television was the new competition.
Colla spent four years of his young adulthood as an actor — trying to find out, he said, whether the kind of theater he watched his family make was actually an art.
His verdict? “Una forma d’arte molto alta,” he said solemnly, and Corbella translated: “A very high form of art.”
Colla also went to college and became a teacher, first at the university level, where he taught the history of theater, then at the grade-school level, teaching Italian, history, geography, and Latin. Along the way, in the mid-1960s, he became determined to revive the company and did so, alongside family members. Some of his students soon became his colleagues.
“He was my teacher,” Corbella said, “and the teacher of three of the other people that now belong to the company.”
Even now, Corbella said, the only trouble old-style marionettes have in connecting with children comes from parents convinced that their little ones will not enjoy low-tech entertainment. As for the children themselves, he pointed to that day’s matinee, and it was true: They cried out to warn the handsome prince not to drink the poison the evil fairy had tried to foist on him; they rejoiced when she was swallowed by a tree; they cheered the parade of familiar fairy tale characters that ends the show.
So is it a reach to see “Sleeping Beauty,” in which a family and the people around it wake much the same after 100 years, as a metaphor for the Colla company? It, too, went dormant for a while, and it, too, is somewhat frozen in time, its techniques mostly unchanged for more than a century.
There is indeed a metaphor, Colla said, though he cast it a bit differently, making Corbella laugh.
“He thinks,” Corbella explained, translating, “that he was, for the Colla family, the prince that kissed a puppet, and everything wakes up again.”