Review: Tiny Ninja Theater
TheaterMania, 4/9/03
"There's something irresistibly charming about seeing Shakespeare's works performed by miniature plastic figurines."

Article: Small Actors Make Big Splash
Dramatics, 4/03
"As Yoda says, ‘You do or you do not; there is no try.’"

Review: Theatre Pick for Week of March 4, 3/4/03
"You think you've seen every twist on The Bard’s work humanly possible..."

Article: Fringe Hit Tiny Ninja Theater Returns to NYC
Playbill Online, 2/9/03
"Trevor Bigfoot as Mercutio — whose death scene has to be seen to be believed"

Article: Best of Charleston 2003
The Charleston City Paper, 1/03
"Readers Pick for Best Piccolo Spoleto Event"

Review: Shakespeare in a Shoebox
The Washington Post, 1/11/03
"Once you've seen its Romeo & Juliet, you'll want to come to back for figurine versions of Hamlet or Othello or whatever else." — Peter Marks

Review: Action Figure Genius
The Charleston City Paper, 10/02
"Quick, clever, and chock full of surprises, more than one audience member claimed that it even outperformed the hit interpretation of the Scottish play." — Colleen Reilly

Review: Freeze Frame
Creative Loafing Charlotte, 10/2/02
"I heartily recommend being among the lucky few when Weinstein & Co. return to Charlotte or Piccolo Spoleto." — Perry Tannenbaum
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Review: Tiny Version of Macbeth is Giant Entertainment
The Charlotte Observer, 9/22/02
"Fresh, funny, ingenious and original." — JoAnn Grose

Review: Tiny Ninja Theater
Hairline, 8/02
"Four Stars: Tiny Ninja Theater is a fantastic and unorthodox show which represents what many love about the Edinburgh Festival." — Simon Ferguson

Review: Bard Takes a Flyer
Sunday Herald, 8/25/02
"Four Stars: Shakespeare is as equally at home among the ridiculous, of course." — Tim Abrahams

Review: Tiny Ninja Theater presents Macbeth
The Scotsman, 8/19/02
"Must be seen to be believed. " — Paul Rhodes

Review: Macbeth
Three Weeks, 8/17/02
"If a definition of the Fringe is originality and artistic expression, then this 35 minute abbreviated version of Macbeth, with tiny plastic ninjas as a cast, must surely rank as an ultimate example." — Paul Cochrane

Review: Mr. Smiley Face Macbeth
The Guardian, 8/10/02
"Weinstein plays it dead straight and speaks the text rather better than some classically trained actors I have heard." — Lyn Gardner

Review: Mini-Cawdor Steals Hearts
The List, 8/8/02
"a marvel of theatrical innovation" — Catherine Bromley

Review: No Drams Required
Edinburgh Guide, 8/3/02
"This is the only one I’m recommending to all my friends and the only thing I think I’ll make a return trip to!" — Annabel Ingram

Article: Ninja-cized Bard
Charleston Post & Courier, 6/1/02

Article: Tiny Ninja Theater Returns to Charleston
The State, 5/31/02

Review: Action Figure Genius
The Charleston City Paper, 5/29/02

Review: Tiny Ninjas Take On Shakespeare's Giant Roles
Charleston Post & Courier, 5/29/02

Article: Oh Tiny Romeo
The Charleston City Paper, 5/02

Article: What's The Buzz
The Charleston City Paper, 5/02
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Article: Where to Celebrate Valentine's Day Solo
Time Out New York, 2/14/02
jump to the good bits

Review: Massaker im Spielzeugland
Taz Bremen, 1/22/02
the babelfish translation

Article: Best of Charleston 2001
The Charleston City Paper, 1/02
"Best Use of Plastic Figurines in a Performance" jump to the good bits

Article: Shakespeare de Plástico
Revista 2K, 6/22/01
the babelfish translation

Piccolo's Prices Too Steep for Local Festival
The State, 6/10/01
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Spoleto Festival at 25
The New York Times, 6/5/01
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Tiny Ninjas Put Twist on the Bard
Charleston Post & Courier, 6/2/01

Tiny Ninjas Project Big Illusion
The Charleston City Paper, 5/29/01

Review: No Small Jokes, Just Small Actors
Charleston Post & Courier, 5/29/01

Article: Immediate Art
The Charleston City Paper, 5/01
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Article: Serious Shakespeare Takes But An Inch
The Charleston City Paper, 5/01

Review: Sightlines: Tom Waits in the Toilet
The Village Voice, 4/27/01

Article: All Is But Toys
Stage Directions, 3/01
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Article: The Bard's New Band of Merry Men Perform Macbeth
American Theater, 12/00

Article: Off-Off color: Toy Story
Time Out New York, 11/9/00
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Review: Street of Blood, Tiny Ninja Theater presents Macbeth
NEXT Magazine, 9/15/00
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Article: Is That a Ninja That I See Before Me?
Playbill Online, 8/30/00

Review: Oh, Forget the Money, Let's Dress Up and Play
The New York Times, 8/26/00
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Fringe Binge
Time Out New York, 8/24/00
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Review: Fringe Benefits
The Village Voice, 8/23/00
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Review: As The Bard Himself Might Put it..., 8/20/00

Review: Tiny Ninja Macbeth, Finally, Little Green Man, 8/18/00
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Article: Off-Off and Running
Time Out New York, 8/10/00
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What’s The Buzz
Sampling the Big Festival

By Patrick Sharbaugh

The most memorable part of Spoleto Festival USA ’02 to date, for me, occurred not in front of an audience but within one. It was a moment of genuine drama, an oasis of vaudevillian burlesque in a desert of earnestness, a thunderclap of irony that only Alanis Morissette would have recognized. Charles Wadsworth had shuffled off the stage at the Dock Street after an opening monologue peppered with his endearing brand of self-deprecating wit, and a trio of youthful musicians had launched into a demanding chamber piece for piano, violin, and French horn. The leggy blond violinist was doing that curious dance violinists do when they start sawing. The French horn player was dumping out the collected spit from a long movement’s worth of blowing and several of the overwhelmingly grey and silver-coiffed heads in the audience were dipping precipitously. Suddenly, it happened: a cell phone began to ring from within a pocketbook somewhere off to my right to the jangly melody of — there was no mistaking it — Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fur Elise. Glancing behind me, I saw someone wrestling maniacally with a purse, no doubt wishing the ushers had handed out cyanide capsules instead of programs.

If you’ve spent any time downtown during the past week, you’ve probably had your own favorite episode, perhaps equally illuminating. In any event, the festival is hard to miss, and the memorable moments and images are certainly out there, on the street as often as they are on the stage. When you add the city-produced Piccolo Spoleto festival to the equation, with some 700 separate events occurring over the same time frame as the Big Festival, you get a whopping 5,150 performers (or pedestrians, depending on which way you look at it) descending upon our quiet seaside hamlet. Even if you see a piddling 1 percent of those performers, that’s still 51 and and a half people, and even if 50 of those are duds, that last guy’s bound to be worth a look.

So taking Spoleto and Piccolo programs in hand, I dove into this year’s festival, knowing full well that I’d be able to see and write about only a relative handful of the complete table of offerings. Consequently, the bulk of this first week’s discussion centers on the Big Festival, since there are vastly fewer total events in it than what’s in Piccolo, and several of them had their premieres in the festival’s first week, with few or no encore productions in the following weeks. Nearly all the Piccolo programs, however, run the entire length of the festival, so next week we’ll do our gosh-darndest to focus on as much of that worthy part of the festival as we can, as well as the Spoleto events that begin later in the festival.

Two Plays
On Thursday, May 24, the preview performance of Brian Friel’s The Bear and Afterplay (collectively called Two Plays After) at the Dock Street Theatre was packed, mostly with prescient festival-goers who’d guessed, correctly, that this would be one of this year’s hottest tickets. The evening’s program had the added benefit of being manageably brief and relatively light in content. Plus, of course, it came with celebrity cachet, gift wrapped as it was with the presence of British stage, television, and film icon John Hurt.

Hurt seems to be one of those actors people in America (in Charleston, anyway) have a difficult time calling to mind. “You mean the guy from Big?” No, that’s John Heard. “Oh, right, the dude from A.I.” Um, no, that was William Hurt. I usually start out citing Mr. Ollivander in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, then try to see if Dr. Iannis in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin rings any bells. “Contact?” Nope. “Rob Roy?” Uh, uh. “The Elephant Man?” Wha..? Invariably, I reach the inevitable: “Remember the guy whose stomach the baby alien exploded out of onto the dinner table in Alien?” Oh, yeah! That guy!

Which is a shame, not to mention an embarrassing indictment of the kind of people I hang around. Because John Hurt is a terrific actor, as anybody who saw him in Afterplay that evening, or since, can attest.

For sheer ability, though, I have to credit his co-star in the play, Penelope Wilton, with outshining him. Her Sonya was an exquisite piece of craftsmanship and nuance; she created a character whose definition lay in the sum of the almost microscopic flickers of action — and inaction — that Wilton brought to the words Friel had given her. Hurt filled out the piece extremely well with his American stage debut, but it was Wilton’s show.

The piece that preceded it, Chekhov’s The Bear (from a translation by Friel), was also well done, though in a completely different vein than Afterplay. Where Afterplay was heartbreaking and full of subtlety, The Bear was a broad guffaw of a farce, with Elisabeth Dermot Walsh looking like a far sexier Catherine Zeta-Jones, and who had me wishing for a bib when my drooling finally got completely out of hand.

Kick Off
I was late for the Opening Ceremony at noon the next day, since it took me 25 minutes to drive from upper King Street to anywhere near the corner of Broad and Meeting. In retrospect, I probably would have stood a better chance if I’d driven to Mt. Pleasant and taken the water taxi over. It was warm but not stifling, and the crowd gathered before City Hall was impressive. Although I missed the (no doubt) electrifying comments from Spoleto’s board president and their treasurer (“luminaries,” according to the official press release), I did catch the final pithy words of John Hurt, who was sweating to such a degree it seemed he was close to cardiac arrest — or having an alien explode out of his chest.

Mayor Riley spoke last, as always, and although he sounded like he’d been at the fights all evening, he did give a rousing affirmation of what Spoleto and the arts mean to humanity in general, and to us Charlestonians in particular, and in a broader way what all of that means for civic life, the nature of urban centers, and the ultimate fate of the universe. Sure, the folks on James Island think he’s the Antichrist, but you gotta hand it to him: the Mayor does get passionate about the arts and creating livable cities.

The ceremony ended with the French hip-hop ballet group Compagnie K”fig’s seven members performing on a stage in front of City Hall for what seemed like an inordinately long time — especially given that they were all doing what were essentially straight breakdancing moves. After about 20 minutes of watching John Hurt and the mayor develop cricks in their necks as one gyrating K”fig after another gave his or her best impression of what embarrassed Americans most about the ’80s, I was frankly a little nervous about seeing them at the Garden Theatre.

The group ostensibly brings French, North African, and Spanish roots together to transform the street moves of American hip-hop into a more formal choreographic technique. K”fig interposed such athletic feats as breakdancing, pop-and-lock, and head-and-back spins with stylized French, North African, and Andalucian Spanish choreography, Brazilian capoeira, mime (god help us all), and gymnastics. The performance was accompanied by Andalucian guitar, electronic and rap music, and some pretty good lighting and video effects. All in all, it wasn’t necessarily my thing, if you know what I mean. But the crowd at the Garden went nuts for them on Sunday, so what the hell do I know.

The Power of
South Africa
“The first time you hear a bunch of South Africans singing together, you’ll never forget it,” is what Broomhill Opera music director Charles Hazlewood told me when I interviewed him on the morning before they opened their much ballyhooed Yiimingaliso: The Mysteries at Sottile Theatre on May 24. I’d previewed in these pages both of the shows the Broomhill gang had slated for this year’s festival, and I’d read the London reviews, so I had a pretty good idea what lay in store for me that evening.
Even so, I wasn’t prepared for the overwhelming experience of seeing The Mysteries in person, and Vumile Nomanyama’s remarkable performance as God and Jesus. Everything you’ve read or heard about this show is true — it is flat-out one of the most exuberant, emotionally charged, brilliant pieces of theatre (and I use that word in the largest possible sense) I’ve ever seen. I will do anything I can to see it again, and if that means I get your seat because you were too slow to buy a ticket, so be it. I’m not a religious person (although I was raised Catholic, so naturally I’ve retained the guilt), and I was slightly skeptical — despite the raves — about a show based on stories from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. I’m an idiot. Because this show isn’t about religion, or even spirituality; it’s about storytelling, and even I can admit that some of the world’s best stories are in the Bible.

When the lights finally went down on the last scene of The Mysteries, the Sottile still rang with the echo of what Hazlewood had described to me. The moment the lights went up — and I mean the moment — every audience member in the house was on his or her feet. That is what standing ovations should be about — the complete inability to remain in one’s seat. It’s also worth noting that in the lobby prior to the performance, there was a sign that read: “WARNING: The first scene of Yiimingaliso: The Mysteries contains full frontal nudity.” According to Hazlewood, only in Charleston have the producers been “encouraged” to post such a sign. A friend suggested a far better alternative posting: “WARNING: every scene but the first of Yiimingaliso: The Mysteries contains no nudity whatsoever. Sorry.”

I thought Broomhill’s other production, of Bizet’s Carmen, was quite good in its own right. It made no excuses about being nontraditional, and it used the same set and rough theatrical idiom as The Mysteries. And Pauline Malefane was a fitting Carmen, able to fix her incredible eyes on a male character, think “puree,” and watch as that person wilted into a quivering, lacerated mound of post-manhood. But the formalized structure of an opera, for all the indigenous expression this South African group brought to it, seemed to drop a wet blanket over what was most appealing about the Broomhill company. For sheer vitality and life-loving energy, Carmen couldn’t come close to The Mysteries, in my opinion.

Soweto’s Strings
Boost Harlem Dance
Dance Theatre of Harlem was as good a dance presentation as I’ve ever seen at Spoleto, a classically trained company that brought an extraordinary level of vitality and creativity to what I heard many patrons (black and white) suggesting — wrongly — would be an “African-American” dance program.
The South African Suite featured infectious music consisting only of percussion and violin from the Soweto String Quartet, with hints of some of the native dance movements seen in The Mysteries. To be honest, extraordinary music brought this production to a level well above the ‘very good’ it would have been based on choreography alone. Set in the colorful costumes and musical atmosphere of Trinidad, the second program, Dougla, also knocked ’em dead at the Gaillard. The final piece, a set of alternatingly saucy and classically-styled pieces set to James Brown and Aretha Franklin songs, was as much fun as one can have without wetting oneself. (Still, there’s something about seeing grown men do full splits that seems to fly in the face of the natural order of the cosmos.)

Birdsong and
At the first Music in Time program last Saturday, organizer and conductor John Kennedy introduced two American premieres of new works from Brett Dean and Somei Satoh, as well as a slightly less new work (1998) by Kyle Gann, who was actually in the audience (as if the members of the Spoleto Festival Orchestra onstage weren’t already anxious enough).

Dean’s Pastoral Symphony, which I previewed here last week, was the first order of business. Kennedy introduced it by playing a sample of an Australian butcherbird’s song, a theme upon which the piece is loosely based. It featured lots of strings, sheets of aluminum foil, a snare drum, and the recorded sounds of birdsong and trees being chopped down. Filled with lots of volume, no discernible meter or melody, and some amazingly dense passages during which even some of the musicians looked hopelessly lost, it was actually pretty enjoyable. Of course, I’m the sort of person who thinks the sound of an orchestra tuning up before a symphony is enjoyable, too, so feel free to take that any way you like.

The second premiere, Satoh’s From the Depths of Silence, was ... completely inoffensive. It was so quiet and slow as to be nearly inaudible — hence, I suppose, the name. As Kennedy said in introducing the piece, “If you have a cough, this is going to be an extremely uncomfortable piece for you.”

Art Caper
In fact, I did have a cough, so rather than suffer through the unpleasantness of trying not to think about clearing my throat for who knows how long, I ankled over to the Camden Exchange Gallery above Rue de Jean for The Great Art Caper, courtesy of artists Kevin Harrison and John Duckworth. Things were a little late getting started, but once they began it was indeed the spectacle I’d been promised. Harrison and Duckworth’s inspiration is to throw a party and insist that no one attend. It’s actually quite a savvy piece of guerrilla marketing — schedule the opening reception for the exhibit, then ask a couple hundred of their very closest friends to boycott the thing. It’s a sham, of course, but the picketers out front, the “celebrity” arrivals, the red carpet treatment, and the paparazzi all made for a good time. With the outrageous outfits on hand (and on virtually every other body part), it was like an old-fashioned Saturday night in SoHo.

More To Come
Everybody wants to see the Tiny Ninjas. Last year it was Macbeth, this year it’s ... well, the Lilliputian little fellas have brought us another tragedy, this time with the Montagues, the Capulets, the Nurse, the Friar, Tybalt and Mercutio, Benvolio and his thumb, the Apothecary, Queen Mab, and, of course, the two whining, hormone-driven adolescents for whom the whole thing is named. The Tiny Ninjas regularly rock New York’s Fringe Festival, and they were certainly a hit last year at Theatre 99’s Piccolo Fringe, where they appear again this year. Considering audiences are limited to 20, and you’ve got to watch the proceedings with binoculars, I’m recommending a sign at the door: “WARNING: Claustrophobic, overweight people with bad eyesight and offensive body odor will be required to exhibit full frontal nudity in the first scene of Romeo and Juliet.”

If you’re thinking there’s a lot out there, even in the Big Festival, that I haven’t gotten around to, you’re absolutely right. Both the big operas have eluded me so far, as have the majority of the jazz programs (although my landlords had a party Saturday evening that ended with a walk to the Cistern for Tierney Sutton’s show, which they’ve told me was splendid). In the coming week, Spoleto introduces the Festival Concert and the Choral/Orchestral Concert, the Westminster Choir, Steve Reich’s much-anticipated documentary video opera Three Tales, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Chen Shi-Zheng’s traditional Chinese fable Ghost Lovers, and Ping Chong’s puppet-theatre work Obon, as well as the theatrical dance group Salia Ni Seydou.

And that’s just Spoleto; there’s a whole raft of music, dance, theatre, film, street performances, lectures and art exhibits in the Little Festival that I’ll be immersing myself in this week, so just sit tight.

I’ll not waste a lot of time bemoaning the fact that I haven’t been able to see The Second City show yet, or the Have Nots!, both of whom I’ve seen several times and both of whom I’ll be making that extra special effort to see sometime this week. You and I both know you want to go, so let’s dispense with the formalities. Tickets are likely to be scarce by the time you read this, so my recommendation is to get on the stick.

• Tickets for the Broomhill Opera Company’s productions of The Mysteries and South African Carmen are so hot that there should be some sort of euphemism for it. We just don’t know it.

• The Have Nots! are doing surprisingly well — almost selling out its first three performances — especially with Second City in town competing for butts in seats.
• You’d better hustle if you want to “check off” buying tickets from your things-to-do list for The Bear and Afterplay.

• Word has it that the senior follies Yesterday’s Heroes, a song and dance review performed by 65 senior citizens from Anderson, is a delightful show for everyone from grandma to grandchild and (apparently) Spoleto Festival USA’s General Director Nigel Redden.

• Quintango nearly sold out its first show at Footlight Players Theatre, and always does well.

• According to Randall Davis of the City’s Office of Cultural Affairs, Piccolo is on a record-setting pace. The little sister festival pre-sold one-and-a-half times as many tickets for its first week this year, as compared to last year’s first week. In its second week, it pre-sold almost one-and-a-third as many tickets as last year’s second week.

• Buy ahead if you want to see The Second City as it is on track to break its previous Piccolo record.
• Pat Conroy’s talk on his brother’s suicide is the third in his doom-and-gloom series and has already sold 450 seats. While only half the house, any Piccolo event that sells that many seats is an unqualified success.

• The second in the series of Mepkin Abbey concerts will likely sell out, as did the first one.
• Looks like the sleeper hits for the big festival will be Chen Shi-Zheng’s Ghost Lovers and Ping Chong’s Obon. Hao-jie-la!

• A line has been rewritten in Master Class that makes reference to local Spoleto critic, Robert Jones. Locals seem to appreciate the joke.

• Per usual, Spoleto’s Chamber Music series sales are starting to heat up.

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