By Keith Loria
For more than a century, the Salzburg Marionettes have cast their spell around the world with lavish productions combining Mozart and fairytales like “Hansel and Gretel.”
”It started in 1913 in Salzburg and the founder was a sculptor and teacher who wanted to start a little theater,” says Barbara Heuberger, manager of the Salzburg Marionettes. “He made little puppets, and his wife made the costumes, and his daughter ran the company. They did a lot of fairy tales and live music.”
In 1950, they began touring America with taped music and became wildly popular around the states. Over the years, they have grown and expanded and now regularly appear around the world.
”I think the fascinating thing with puppets is you really get into the illusion that these little human creatures are on stage,” Ms. Heuberger says. “You combine that with the lights, the sets and the artistry of the puppeteers and it becomes this magic thing the audience feels. They know it’s only a piece of wood, but it’s moving like it’s alive.”
The famed troupe is headed to the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, Feb. 27-28. The Saturday night show will consist of a brand-new full-length production of Alice in Wonderland, and the Sunday afternoon performance will be feature Little Red Riding Hood and Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.
”We originally produced ‘Alice’ for our 100th birthday in 2013, and there are wonderful puppets and very beautiful costumes,” Ms. Heuberger says. “For the Queen’s costume, it took more than 150 hours to create. It’s really something.”
The show consists of a wide variety of marionettes — both people and animals — controlled by 10 puppeteers and one technician. Accompanying the marionettes on stage will be Armin Brunner on violin and Imre Rohmann on piano.
”It can be really stressful because of all the action and the elaborate scenery, and you have to manage everything all at once,” Ms. Heuberger says. “We compose a little underground music of piano and violin, and it’s very romantic. The kids are sitting in the garden reading a book and then Alice starts to dream. That’s when the story starts.”
Just like in Lewis Carroll’s story, Alice will fall through the hole, get big and small and encounter all the unique characters of Wonderland and take part in the infamous tea party.
As for the family matinee performance, it’s a little different than what might be expected.
”It starts with Little Red telling the story about Peter and ends with her story,” Ms. Heuberger says. “It’s designed for children to enjoy. The story of Peter is very simple — he goes into the garden and meets animals — and all of a sudden the wolf comes and enters his life. I think it’s a great story for little children.”
Additionally, the puppeteers and costume designer Hinrich Horstkotte will reveal their genius in front of the curtain for everybody to just how they bring the marionettes to life.
Most of the puppeteers have been at the craft for decades, and Ms. Heuberger says that once people get involved, it’s hard to leave because they all quickly fall in love with it all.
”I started working with them 16 years ago and I really love going backstage and seeing how it is all done,” Ms. Heuberger says. “I was so fascinated by it all. It’s not easy work, you need to learn puppeteering like an instrument, bringing expression to the figures, and being a little like an actor.”
For families planning to come out to the shows, Ms. Heuberger thinks both performances are perfect viewing and a great way to spend some time together.
”I love the moment when you really get into this magic feeling and your eyes adapt to this illusion in the little opening of the stage,” she says. “There’s almost nothing like it.”
The Salzburg Marionettes will perform at McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton, Feb. 27, 7:30 p.m., Feb. 28, 2 p.m. Tickets cost $25-$50; mccarter.org; 609-258-2787.
By Keith Loria