Wednesday 19 December 2007

Now For Something Completely Different...Puppet Carnage!

Mimmo Cuttichio and his Sicilian Puppets

"Does your life revolve entirely around cycling?," people ask me. Distressingly often. In fact, there is usually eye-rolling involved. Or running away.
Just to indicate how well-rounded my interests are and given that the massive snowfall in Ottawa has meant the end of cycling for the time being, I have gone back to my Archive of Interesting Things, back to March 29, 2001. I was living in Berlin at the time and decided to go to a training camp put on by Mallorca-Aktiv, a German group generally setting up trips to Spain but this time they were offering a Southern Italian adventure: two weeks in Sicily.
In preparation for my imminent trip to Sicily for bicycle training, I decided to acclimatize myself by going to a performance by Mimmo Cuticchio, a traditional puppeteer from Palermo. This is probably a little like reading Julius Caesar in Latin to get ready for a trip to Rome, but I could not pass up any production named: "The Terrible and Frightening Story of the Prince of Venosa and His Beautiful Maria." On the other hand, I was alarmed by the idea that the accompanying music was described as a composition for human voice, saxophones and percussion. When I purchased my ticket at the box office the night before the performance, I had no difficulty getting an excellent seat (Row 7, in the middle) and I was distinctly worried about being the only audience member watching a baroque puppet show entirely in Italian.

The Hebbel Theater, where the show took place, is a very interesting building and was constructed in 1907, when Art Nouveau seems to have been going through a particularly organic, and slightly creepy, phase. The facade of the building is poured concrete set with various geometric patterns the height of the theatre. Inside, it is rather dark, with lost of curved dark brown wood panelling but very little ornamentation. In the lobby are pictures of various pre- World War II theatres in Berlin, most of them since destroyed. There seem to be no fewer than three coat check areas on the main floor, although the place is not all that large. On the second floor, there is a large lounge where you can have something to eat or drink.

The seats in the Hebbel are definitely not one of its highlights, being too close together and having too short cushions, but I thought that surviving the eighty minutes of the performance would not be too hard, particularly since I was going to be the only one there. But then I noticed that the theatre was beginning to fill quite rapidly and before I realized it, the place was quite full. The audience looked very artsy-trendy, with lots of black turtlenecks visible. As I was to soon learn, most of those present spoke Italian, as they were all laughing at the jokes before I could figure them out.

On the stage as the puppet theatre, which had brightly-painted wings of cloth and, over the proscenium arch, an inscription describing the Cuticchios as "Sons of Art" [Pupi Siciliani Della Compagnia Figli D’Arte Cuticchio]. With Italian punctuality (15 minutes late), the lights went down and the orchestra pit filled, if filled is the right word when applied to a female vocalist, four saxophonists and a percussionist. The woman began the overture, which was sung in Italian but whose meaning was unclear to me. Was this the famous impenetrable dialect of Sicily? The music was dissonant and pretty weird.

After this went on for a while and I was beginning to regret the 30 DM and the evening lost, out from behind the puppet theatre came Mimmo Cuticchio, a tall, sturdy man with a big grey beard, resembling Verdi with long hair. He was carrying a wooden sword.

Standing centre stage, he began to recite a story about the childhood of composer Carlo Gesualdo (c. 1561-1613). Carlo’s grandfather enjoyed telling the little boy stories about brave knights and famous battles, but one day he told a different story. This was about how King Pippin’s intended bride Bertha is kidnapped by hired assassins, who then release her in the woods to die, rather than kill her (Snow White Syndrome). She is rescued by a woodcutter and gratefully marries him, with several bambini resulting.

In the meantime, a serving girl has been fobbed off on King Pippin as Bertha and the result of this union is two sons. Eventually, Pippin learns of the deception and gets the real Bertha back (but what about the woodcutter?) and two more children, Carlo and Bertha, result from this now-corrected marital situation. But, alas, Pippin’s sons by his marriage to the servant want to usurp the throne and war breaks out. The young Carlo is sent to the Court of Spain, where he falls in love but then returns to claim his inheritance by killing his stepbrothers in fierce knightly battle and becoming Charlemagne, Charles the Great.

I followed this story, which is both a staple of Sicilian puppet theatre and a load of old cobblers, partially through reading the woefully slow and very limited German surtitles and through watching Mimmo Cuticchio very closely. The story went on for quite some time and, except for the reference to Carlo Gesualdo, seemed to have absolutely nothing whatever to do with the following puppet show. But to see Mimmo Cuticchio recite a story was to see a master at work. This method of reciting is also an old Sicilian art.

He portrayed the little Carlo Gesualdo, he played the wise old grandfather. The wooden sword became a potent multiple prop, as it metamorphosized from a sword in battle scenes to a cross in a church. But I was completely transfixed by the seductive beauty of the Italian language as Mimmo Cuticchio played it like a violin. It cajoled, it laughed, it trumped, it regretted, it wept–all in a completely hypnotic music. I really only know Italian from bad opera libretti, a few phrases at a time and I was unprepared for its teasing subtlety, its incomparable attractiveness. I forgot about the not-yet-seen puppets and the weird music and the uncomfortable seat and just wanted Mimmo Cuticchio’s story never to end.

But end it did, as the puppetmaster replaced the storyteller and we learned that Carlo Gesualdo, a nobleman, went on to became the Prince of Venosa and a celebrated composer and musician and that we would now see his (and the Beautiful Maria’s) Terrible and Frightening Story.
In the opening scene, Carlo Gesualdo and his beautiful wife, Maria d’Avalos, are guests of honour at a party to celebrate his latest madrigal. Carlo lives for his music and has begun to take Maria for granted. Carlo’s wicked uncle, seeing a golden opportunity, makes a pass at Maria, who rejects him forcefully. She tells him to join the others, who have left for a hunt.

Carlo is an excellent huntsman, and when his uncle’s attempt to kill a wild boar fails, the nephew returns shortly afterwards with the kill. This angers Uncle even further. In the meanwhile, a band of brigands waits in the woods for a likely victim to waylay. Ignoring a poor old man with a donkey–to rob him would be dishonourable–they instead attack a wealthy young nobleman, Fabrizio Carafa, who is travelling with his cowardly servant on horseback. Using the time-honoured Let’s-Attack-One-At-A-Time style so beloved of movie villain gangs, the brigands attempt to do battle with Fabrizio Carafa, who kills all but one single-handed. This is quite a remarkable thing to see when do with marionettes. The FX (Special Effects) marionettes are used, with heads and various appendages flying off when struck with swords.

The surviving brigand admits he is not the leader of the group but works for the notorious Sciarra. "You steal from the rich and give to the poor, don’t you?" asks Fabrizio. He is impressed by this socialist attitude enough to let the brigand go, taking a message to the notorious Sciarra that if he ever wanted to fight, Fabrizio Carafa was ready to meet him man-to-man.

Carafa’s servant comes out of hiding to tell him that the horse has run off. They walk through the forest to reach yet another party chez Gesualdo. Everyone is delighted to see the popular Fabrizio Carafa and for the bored but beautiful Maria, it is love at first sight. And reciprocal. "You are as beautiful as an archangel," she coos to Fabrizio. This line, which even sounds corny in Italian, provoked huge amusement amongst the audience. For Maria, this is no slavering uncle-by-marriage: this is Hot Stuff indeed! Uncle notices Maria and Fabrizio’s mutual attraction and really goes around the bend. And a Spanish nobleman offers Fabrizio the use of his nearby hunting lodge, so we know that Big Trouble is Brewing.

Having failed with his words of honey, Uncle turns to the obvious alternative: sorcery. Casting spells in the basement, he summons up a remarkable array of demons who fly off to their assignment of poisoning the minds of all those at the court of Carlo Gesualdo. Then Uncle goes to tell the poor Prince of Venosa all about the affair.

Unable to believe what he hears, Carlo demands confirmation, asking his trusty chamberlain if the sordid story is true. At this moment, a demon stands behind the chamberlain and directs his every word, spewing out the whole dreadful story. Carlo, now himself possessed by a particularly original red-and-black winged demon, feels that court etiquette demands that his honour can only be salvaged in one way: Italian Revenge!!

We see the hunting lodge, where the naked Maria (!) and Fabrizio (!) cavort in innocence (actually, they are cavorting in bed, so perhaps it is not so innocent). Then there is the arrival of Carlo Gesualdo’s hired assassins, who shoot Fabrizio, a nicely modern touch for 1590, although I suppose they needed two killers as the guns were so unreliable then. The Prince of Venosa finishes the crime by personally stabbing his wife repeatedly.

Horrified, and apparently shed of his winged demon, Carlo Gesualdo is contrite for what he has done. He tells his chamberlain that he will never leave his castle again and will receive no one for the remainder of his days. And so ends "La Terrible e spavantosa storia del Principe de Venosa e della bella Maria." The curtains fall and we are left to reflect on the Depravity of Mankind yet once again.

The puppets used to portray this story (which is a true one, incidentally) are marionettes about 80 cm tall and fairly heavy. Generally, a rod is used to operate the left arm and a string is used for the right, but others of the puppets are controlled only by the highly-visible rods. Some of the puppets have been used by three generations of Cuticchios and there must be a fair amount of repair work needed, particularly after the fight sequences which are a notable feature of Sicilian puppetry. In the scene where Fabrizio fights the brigands, the puppets crash together with swords or spears in their hands. One puppet is decapitated, another is cut in half through the torso while the others just collapse dramatically into heaps.

The scene where Uncle summons the demons was also very memorable. Not only were the demons wonderfully creepy to look at, but their entrance was marked by a blinding flash of light as a fiery comet crossed the stage, leaving a strong brimstone (cordite?) smell in the Hebbel-Theater.

The music, by Sicilian-born Salvatore Sciarrino, was based on works by Carlo Gesualdo and Domenico Scarlatti and was surprisingly very good. The four saxophones, of assorted ranges, sounded almost like trumpets and gave a properly baroque feel to the proceedings.
After the show was over, the wings of the puppet theatre were pulled down to reveal the core structure and the puppets on their stands. Mimmo Cuticchio returned to the stage to invite us all not only to see the company perform in Palermo, but also to come on stage and exam the marionettes up close and personal. (As I suspected, the semi-nude Maria puppet was a stand-in). The audience accepted with alacrity and there was soon a big crowd of Italian-speaking party animals, including the musicians, the five puppeteers and, of course, me–except for the Italian part--, on the boards.

Puppetry was first imported from Naples in the 19th Century, but the Sicilian variety, with its emphasis on tales of chivalry, including the stories of Orlando Furioso and Charlemagne battling the Moors, has achieved its own reputation. Its popularity survived the advent of the movie theatre, but television threatens it with extinction. It is performed now primarily for tourists. Mimmo Cuticchio has worked to revive this traditional art since 1977 and his apprentices all must undergo a difficult four years of learning.

Puppetry has a very long history and is a powerful metaphoric tool that is rarely used now in the modern world. Unless you count the brilliant and hilarious film "Being John Malkovitch." Watching the fairly simple Sicilian puppets, whose rods were visible and whose facial expressions cannot change, we accept them for who they are meant to portray. In their movements, they come alive for us and their fates are interesting and meaningful. I remember reading a quote from someone involved with the Salzburg Marionettes, who pointed out that when using puppets to perform opera, you are not limited by the physical appearance of a particular singer. A puppet can look exactly as you expect the character to look.

I was reminded of this as well during a visit to London when I saw "Shock-Headed Peter," where puppets are used as a complement to the human actors. As one reviewer wrote, the puppets actually seem more real and sympathetic than the people. The most frightening moment came when the Boy-Who-Sucked-His-Thumbs, portrayed by a rather forlorn and harmless marionette, had his thumbs cut off by a pair of scissors wielded by Mr. Snip-Snip, just as his mother warned would happen. This was done to a puppet, yet you could sense the frisson that went through the appalled audience, an audience inured to the violence on film and television present every night.
So there you have it: non-cycling on my blog. But I will post an account of my trip to Sicily in 2001 since it was a lot of fun too.


Will said...


Interesting and fun post.

Personally, I am terrified of marionettes, especially naked (Maria?) puppets.

I hope it's a short winter in Ottawa, you need to ride!

Sprocketboy said...

Luckily it was not the kind of graphic puppet sex that appeared in "Team America: World Police." I suspect that traumatized a generation or two.

I have some interesting cycling stuff to post but I thought that this was a novel story. I am glad that at least one person made it all the way through!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this! I have been looking for a video of this play for ages and can't seem to find one. Loved reading about it :)