Review – Teatro dei Pupi (Marionette/Puppet Theater) Syracuse/Siracusa (Piccolo Teatro dei Pupi) and Palermo (Puppet Museum and Vicenzo Argento e Figli)

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While I didn’t make it to any plays per se in the last week, I did make it to not one, not two, but THREE puppet shows while travelling in Siciliy. The first was on Saturday, April 4th, at the Piccolo Teatro Dei Pupi in Syracuse (Siracusa in Italian), on Ortygia Island, where we saw “Orlando al Giardino INcantato di Drogantina.” The second was Wednesday, April 13th, in Palermo at the International Puppet Museum (Museo internazionale delle Marionette), which was showing “Dama Rovenza assedia Parigi”. Finally, we made it to Opera dei Pupi di Vincenzo Argento e Figli on Sunday, April 12th (Easter Sunday!).

Guessing that most of you haven’t been to a Sicilian puppet show, I’m going to fill in a little background. First, there are two active styles (Palmeterian and Catanian), which is a big deal to the Sicilians but won’t make much of a difference to the uninitiated (differences have to do with puppet size and the ability of a puppet to draw a sword or otherwise not have a sword in its hand) – they both are enjoyable for similar reasons. Second, the “stories,” as such, are drawn from traditional Medieval troubador tales, and typically involve Orlando/Roland, Orlando’s love, Angelica, and possibly Rinaldo (Orlando’s friend), one or many Moors, Charlemagne, and a host of other figures. (The story lines seem to pull from every myth ever told, such as Odysseus and King Arthur, as well as a frequently-cited traditional collection of chivalric tales whose name escapes me.) Third, the stories are episodic, by which I mean you’re just going to get a slice of the entire story; if you’re lucky, you may get a summary of what you’re going to see (the Piccolo Teatro and Vincenzo Argento provided these) but what you won’t get is an ending unless you manage to watch a cycle all the way through. The summary is important because, fourth, the story will be told in Sicilian. However, this may not matter too much because, fifth, the stories are primarily set-ups for battle scenes, and it’s not too hard to figure out what’s going on when a puppet gets sliced in half or has its head whacked off. Sixth, the theaters are fairly intimate, the cost is low (7 euros in Syracuse and 12 for each of the shows in Palermo), and they only last and hour, and with all of the stomping and fighting they are really a good time.

So, on to a proper review. The Piccolo Teatro dei Pupi in Siracusa was showing “Orlando in Drogantina’s Enchanted Garden.” The theater holds about thirty people in total and is located off a tiny alley five minutes from the Piazza Archimede (showtime was at 6:30 PM) and probably sells out pretty regularly. This was ultimately my favorite of the shows that I saw, partially because of the variety of the puppets and the fact that there was no amplification used for the voices, but also because of the considerable coherence of the storyline. A literal reading of the story would be: Orlando helps retrieve a man’s young son from a giant; fights a creature that acts and looks rather like the Sphinx; is imprisoned by another giant (who finishes ding from his wounds after trapping Orlando in a cage, most awesome); is freed by a sassy monk; fights a cyclops; then finally drinks a potion that puts him under the spell of Dragontina, who wants to add him to her collection of men (statues) in her garden. (There is also a side story about Angelica and her father, a king who wants to marry her to someone who is not Orlando, but this does not distract much from the main action.) However, this is very dry. Let me instead relate to you my impressions as I watched it:

Wow, cool, he looks great! Why do they keep stomping every time Orlando walks on stage? Hah, great fight! But why was Orlando fighting a Klingon, and why was the Klingon armed with a piano leg? Hey, did that monk just change clothes and come back as Angelica’s maid? NONE SHALL PASS! So, what, Orlando is too stupid to answer the sphinx’s riddle? What is that other knight doing there? DEMONS! DEMONS! HA HA HAH! Ooh, more stomping, another fight! Wait, is that the end?

As you can see, I thought this was really a great time even without really being able to follow the dialogue. Fights don’t really need translations; awesome puppets (every company makes their own) are enjoyable on their own, especially in limited doses like this (and when you have really crazy ones like demons, giants, and dragons); and all of the noise and special effects kept me pretty focused on stage even though the battles (whack whack whack) were fairly rote.

On later reflection, I realized that this company was actually of the Catanian style, as the puppets were pretty much forced to hold swords at all time, but what I was more interested in was that the puppets’ sword arms were operated by rods instead of by strings like for traditional marionettes. This, apparently, is why they call these “pupi” and not really marionettes. The rods make it possible for the puppets to really fight hard with each other, and I was kind of surprised when I realized how much whacking their shields and armor probably take over time. (I was also impressed when I realized that in addition to carving, painting, and dressing the puppets, the puppet company also has to make their armor – quite a range of skills in one house!) The rod puppet is the style for all of the Sicilian puppets, even the ones that are holding a rod (such as a magician) or a cup (Dragontina’s servant) or nothing at all (Angelica and her father). Compared to the Carter Family Marionettes in Seattle (the company whose puppetry I am most familiar with), these puppets seemed fairly crude – their mouths and eyes didn’t move, and they couldn’t make any hand gestures at all. I enjoyed myself nonetheless.

The two shows I saw in Palermo followed pretty much the same story, in which Rolando, under orders from Charlemagne and in Paris, has to fight a piles of Saracens to get the hand of Angelica. The Puppet Museum’s tale had Rolando inadvertently killing the sister of his best friend (who was fighting, God knows why, but perhaps if we’d made it in on time we’d have known); the Argento e Figli show has Orlando fighting with his friend Rinaldo for her. Both shows featured huge battles against Saracens, which resulted in a wide variety of dismemberments and a pile of dead bodies on stage; both featured magicians speaking with demons (which/who otherwise didn’t figure in the action); both had dragons (NO idea why, but Vincenzo Argento won this battle as his dragon puffed smoke out of his nose); both had music (which wasn’t in the Piccolo Teatro, as best I recall); both had Charlemagne and took place in Paris.

My thought is that the puppets created by Vincenzo Argento were superior to the Puppet Museum’s, but that the presentation of the Puppet Museum was better because of the use of a live player piano for accompanying music. Argento used recorded music, including “The Blue Danube,” which went over well with his audience, but I felt like the amplified voices were distracting (especially since this wasn’t done consistently for all characters). The player piano used for the fight scenes made them feel especially mad, and I really got into it. Now, Argento had a better space – the very high ceilings kind of took away atmosphere at the puppet museum, though the broad space meant there were no interrupted sight lines.

Overall, however, all three of these shows were a good time, and I think they added greatly to my trip. I will happily go see more the next time I am there, or if one comes to my home town. (I might have even managed more shows if I’d seen this very thorough listing or read this article, but I had enough to do with figuring out hotels, cars, and public transportation that I did not have much luck finding information before I left about what I might be able to see while I was there.)

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2 Responses to “Review – Teatro dei Pupi (Marionette/Puppet Theater) Syracuse/Siracusa (Piccolo Teatro dei Pupi) and Palermo (Puppet Museum and Vicenzo Argento e Figli)”

  1. Review – Fantastic Mr Fox – Little Angel Theatre « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] bunraku and kuruma ningyo style puppetry, and my trips to Sicily have been greatly enlivened by the Catanian/Syracusan and Palmiterian “teatro de […]

  2. Pete Missingham Says:

    Thanks for explaining what on earth was going on during a recent Montalbano episode.

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