Sicilian puppeteers delight local audience

Armor clanking, swords aloft, an army invaded and conquered Sigonella's theater last Saturday -- and judging by the delight of the audience, there wasn't much resistance.

The traditional Sicilian puppet show of the Napoli brothers of Catania charmed yet another audience, as the company has been for nearly a century.

The miniature warriors played out a centuries-old story from the legends of Charlemagne, the French emperor who ruled during the 8th century, and his knights, called Paladins. In this episode, the Paladins march to battle the Tartars and have various adventures on the way, such as rescuing a beautiful Indian princess and killing a dragon.

Tradition is what matters for the Fratelli Napoli, the Napoli brothers. "Everything is done according to tradition," said Fiorenzo Napoli. From the stories to the props to the technical aspects, the Napoli brothers work hard at keeping the Sicilian tradition.

Founded by Gaetano Napoli, born in 1877, this company of "l'Opera dei Pupi," as the puppet theater is known in Catania, was passed on to his son Natale and his wife Italia Chiesa, who in turn passed it on to their four sons, who now run the theater. Signora Chiesa is still active with the company as a parlatore, a voice for the female puppets. Fiorenzo is the parlatore for the male characters; Guiseppe and Gaetano are animatore, puppeteers; and Salvatore runs the technical aspects.

Like the magic of their performance, it seems like magic how the entire theater unfurls from their tiny Fiat van: a triple tiered stage, a dozen set changes, props, a plethora of technical equipment, and the nearly two dozen pupi, or puppets.

Standing about two feet tall, the pupi are completely handmade, from the carved wooden bodies to the embossed copper armor of the warriors and the elaborate dresses of the women. Onstage, they seem much larger and have an astonishingly life-like presence, as attested by the awe of the younger members of the audience. Much of the puppets' stage presence is due to the skill of the animatore -- and it requires skill indeed, as the pupi are heavy and awkward.

"These are small," said Chiesa. "The big puppets weigh 40 kilos" -- nearly 90 pounds!

The puppets aren't complete without their voices: Chiesa and Fiorenzo do all the voices, from noble Paladins to a mad monk to an exotic Indian princess. They work without a script; the story indelibly inked in their minds by tradition.

But the Opera dei Pupi is not only a form of entertainment for Sicilians, explained Cinzia. If Sicilians cannot themselves fight, they may instead address a social issue through the puppet theater. In the Napoli brothers' performance, the story is exciting, full of knights in shining armor, maidens in distress, and fire-breathing dragons, but it also shows the defeat of the pagan Saracens by the Christian Paladins. In the final scene, the dying Agricane, Grand Emperor of the Tartars, asks the Paladin Orlando to convert him to Christianity; Orlando concedes and baptizes him.

Though many bambini Americani couldn't understand what was being said, they understood very well the magic of this magnificent Sicilian tradition. More than a few children couldn't wait to get their hands on one of those clanking Paladins.

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Copyright 1997 by Jennifer Tyson