Carlo Colla and Sons Marionette Company Pied Piper

"The Pied Piper" is one of two productions by Carlo Colla and Sons Marionette Company at Spoleto Festival this year.

Last year, when Eugenio Monti Colla got too sick to move Hans, one of the star marionettes in his company’s performance of “The Pied Piper,” his former student and longtime collaborator Piero Corbella took over. Eugenio spent years preparing the Carlo Colla and Sons Marionette Company for the day when it would no longer be run by a Colla; it was his express desire to pass the centuries-old tradition on to a new group of artists.

But that didn’t make the process any easier for Corbella, who had been working alongside Eugenio since he was a young boy playing with marionettes in the company’s atelier in Milan.

Colla died in November, leaving Corbella and his fellow company members to carry on the Colla family legacy that had begun in 1835 with Eugenio’s great-great-grandfather, Giuseppe Colla. Under Eugenio Colla’s leadership, the company had grown and achieved international acclaim, appearing in theaters and at arts festivals around the world. Now, with Colla gone and the company back at Spoleto Festival USA to perform “The Pied Piper” (as well as the Cimarosa opera “Il Matrimonio Segreto”), Corbella is working to transmit the tradition of Italian marionettes and the love of the theater to the next generation.

“There is no more family tradition, but now there is another family,” Corbella said. “Not a family of blood but a family of people that like to work together.”

Like every Colla production, “The Pied Piper” is a vibrant display of hand-carved marionettes — including some 300 rats this time — and meticulously constructed sets and backdrops. When the company performs in America, the dialogue is in English, but no matter where it goes around the world, Corbella said people can always understand what he called “the language of the marionette.”

This capacity to address universal human sentiments through movement is partially why the company never sets its stories in the contemporary era, and also why fables like “The Pied Piper” are perfect for marionette interpretation, Corbella said.

But it also makes Colla’s “Pied Piper” something of an anomaly in America, where fairy tales and puppet shows are often aimed at young audiences.

In Europe, “the distinction between theater for young audiences and theater for adults isn’t as cut-and-dried as it seems to be in America,” says Emma Halpern, co-artistic director of the New York City Children’s Theater. American theater for young audiences tends to have what Halpern calls “an educational, didactic bent,” while classic fables have a hard time competing with contemporary "Young Adult" stories.

“The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” the original story upon which this production is based, has survived nevertheless. What began as an obscure piece of medieval Germanic history morphed into a pan-European fable, with versions by Robert Browning and the Brothers Grimm cementing their place in the literary canon during the 19th century.

By the time Eugenio Colla wrote his version in 1997, the story had inspired interpretations in every medium, from the 1980 ABBA song “The Piper” to the unreleased Jerry Lewis Holocaust film “The Day the Clown Cried.”

Colla’s version takes the story back to its roots, using the original setting of the 13th-century village of Hamelin to create a joyous, colorful environment into which the rats, as well as the piper, intrude.

By targeting audience members of all ages, Colla's “Pied Piper” avoids some of the effects of American theater for young audiences. While Corbella emphasizes the marionette’s capacity to bring about childlike wonder in adults, Halpern believes that these kinds of performances will help keep theater itself alive.

“We want adults to go to the theater 30 years from now,” she said. “And if you’re a kid and all you see is something that condescends to you, why would you go to the theater as an adult?”

Corbella hopes “The Pied Piper” will inspire children to do more than just watch. “We were the boys and girls of the company 40 years ago,” Corbella said of himself and his fellow Colla Company members. “Now we must find the people that will go on with this tradition after us.”

Isaac Napall is a Goldring Arts Journalist at Syracuse University.