Little girls with large bows in their hair and small boys with clip-on ties excitedly followed parents and grandparents into Emmett Robinson Theater Thursday evening, anxious to see the classic fairy tale Cinderella as performed by marionettes. Colla Marionette Company, who traveled from Milan, Italy, to participate in the Spoleto Festival, interpreted the play entirely through silent action, supported only by a piano, trumpet, violin, and viola in the pit and occasional, pre-recorded scene-setting narrations. Colla’s version of Cinderella is based on Charles Perrault’s original 17th century story and varies slightly from the Americanized Disney version. For example, Colla’s temperamental prince is far from the strapping, white-horse-riding savior he is in the film.

The play opens in the garden of the royal palace where the Prince is moping. The narrative booms through the speaker, informing the audience that the prince is, “in a state of deep melancholy.” The courts jesters, a Three Stooges-like group of marionettes, dance onto the stage, tumbling and bumbling in a failed effort to distract the precious prince. The concerned King and Queen call in their ministers and counselors, a dramatic-looking bunch who file in with such authority that a little boy loudly whispered to his mother, “Are they the bad guys?” It is decided that the prince needs a bride to cheer him up, and they advise the King to throw a royal ball so that the prince may be introduced to suitors.

Word of the ball is spread in wonderfully entertaining scene in the main square of the kingdom. The king’s heralds, perched atop marionette horses whose tails swing playfully, trot into town. Royal musicians announce the ball with drums and trumpets. The marionettes’ precision with the orchestra is both funny and impressive. The locals rejoice and dancing ensues.

Finally we meet poor Cinderella, and she is as sad and pathetic as in any carnation. Soot-covered cheeks, waist-length blonde locks and a dirty plain dress — a far cry from the colorful silk and flowing satin garments of the other female characters — she holds her dirty hands up to her face and sobs, heaving heavily. The evil stepmother, a stout, menacing woman with a shock of curly red hair and a hat with two devil-like horns, and the two stepsisters leave with Cinderella’s father — who in this retelling is still alive but completely impotent under the evil stepmother’s dominance — to attend the royal ball. Before exiting, the evil stepmother returns to put Cinderella in her place by means of socking her in the face repeatedly, Punch and Judy-style. The shocked audience laughs out of surprise, unprepared for this brief reversion to old-school marionette violence.

Later, as the curtain rises to reveal the inside of the ornate palace where the ball is being held, the young audience gasps audibly. The prince, pouty as ever, is on his thrown as a parade of suitors is marched before him. And the fairy tale plays out in a familiar pattern.

With its exaggerated antics and elaborate stage production, Colla Marionette’s Cinderella features the melodrama of a silent film with the bizarre absurdity of puppetry. The production at times pokes fun at itself — like when a dozen cherubs simultaneously fall from the sky, suspended above the stage to mark the last note of the finale number, and the actual Cinderella narrative is vague. Because the storyline is well known, the puppetry skillfully executed, and the production so elaborate, the audience remains enthralled, the children never picking up on the campiness and the adults appreciating the performance on many levels.