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
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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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IT’S A GIVEN that Juliet’s days are numbered. For four hundred years, Shakespeare’s young protagonist has perished beside her beloved Romeo. She’s doomed, and we all know it. So it was doubly tragic when in the midst of a conversation with her Nurse in Dov Weinstein’s Romeo and Juliet at Washington, D.C.’s Warehouse Theatre, Juliet suddenly plummeted from the stage, hitting the floor with the same force as if she’d leapt from atop the Empire State Building.

The fall wasn’t a complete shock, since the stage was an ironing board and Juliet was a little plastic doll whose toothpick- like feet couldn’t consistently maintain the weight of her bulbous head. What’s surprising is Weinstein’s estimation that Juliet falls in about 40 percent of her performances. It’s fixable, says Weinstein, the director and sole puppeteer for Tiny Ninja Theatre, a company that uses dolls to perform adaptations of Shakespeare and other texts. But Weinstein doesn’t see the need to prevent Juliet’s fall. He likes what it signifies and how the audience responds to it.

Some spectators rescue Juliet, place her back on the stage, he says. Some are paralyzed, mindful of theatre’s imaginary fourth wall that forbids their intrusion. Some wonder if it’s part of the show. Whatever the response, Weinstein continues the scene solemnly, without even so much as an ad lib acknowledging the fall. Juliet may be a toy, but as Weinstein sees it, her romantic predicament is as serious as it has ever been.

“The line ‘Cast me not away’ is right there, which has a resonance,” Weinstein explains. “That scene is about what’s happening to Juliet at that moment, about how her world has just fallen apart and everybody fails to recognize it. Even the nurse fails to recognize it, or tries to gloss it over. Had she fallen in any other moment, it would have been a problem I would have had to fix. But I like that when those worlds line up.”

That blend of serendipity and theatrical know-how is what brought Juliet to her precarious perch in the first place. If Weinstein hadn’t concocted his miniature puppet troupe precisely when he did, it may never have happened at all. And if he didn’t have such strong business sense and dramatic chops, the company’s life span would likely have been far shorter than Juliet’s.

Tiny Ninja Theatre was born in 2000. It was a passing joke at first, the notion that a cast of plastic ninja figurines could put on a better show than some of the productions Weinstein had performed in embarrassingly often in the competitive New York theatre scene.

“I found the life of a New York actor to be an unjustifiably degrading one,” says Weinstein, twenty-seven. “As an ac- Ninjas tor, you’re constantly asking for permission. You’re asking for permission just to do what you do. First, you ask for permission to act. Mostly that permission is not granted. When that permission is granted, you’re supposed to be so grateful that you’ll work under any conditions, for no money at all, under whatever schedule they give you, in whatever rat-infested environment. And you’ll be thankful to have the opportunity, because so many people don’t have that opportunity and you’ve been denied it yourself so many times. So you work with sub-par directors, in sub-par conditions, to do plays that are routinely bad and poorly attended because they’re bad. It’s intolerable.”

So when a friend mentioned to Weinstein that the New York International Fringe Festival was seeking more puppetry acts to diversify its roster, he figured he’d apply. His idea: “Tiny Ninja Theatre presents Macbeth.” The execution: figurines on a miniature stage, with sets made from cardboard boxes, toys and household items, desk lamps for lighting, and a small audience—ten per show, initially—all of whom would be provided functional toy binoculars to help them see the details. Weinstein would be the puppeteer for the whole troupe, dressed in black and providing all the voices. The play would be abridged to forty minutes, but would otherwise stay true to Shakespeare’s form and language.

Weinstein had the training to pull it off. He had studied mask and puppetry while earning his bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Brown University in Rhode Island. Afterward, at a commedia del’arte workshop in Italy, he met a group of Swedish performers, with whom he later attended circus school. The gang then headed to Sweden, where they created a two-man show called Snow White for Suckers, in which a pair of swindlers try to make some quick cash by claiming they have a Snow White puppet show, and instead of escaping with the dough, they end up accidentally running onto a stage, where they are forced to concoct the show after all, using makeshift puppets. Weinstein played all seven dwarves. But with Tiny Ninja Theatre, Weinstein was flying solo. The troupe didn’t even exist, except in scribbles on a desk at Fringe.

Former Fringe artistic director John Clancy still cherishes that homely application, handwritten on paper torn from a notebook. “I was going through it thinking, ‘Is this a put-on? Is this a joke someone’s making?’” Clancy recalls. After scrutinizing the application, he and the Fringe team concluded that Wein-stein was serious, and that his proposal had merit. “We said, ‘This guy is probably nuts, but it could be beautiful.’”

When the acceptance letter arrived, Weinstein was taken aback. With just two months to prepare, he quit his day job at a theatrical events company. And, acknowledging his ineptitude at marketing and computer skills, he contacted his college pal Jonathan Van Gieson, an experienced web page designer and businessman.

Tiny Ninja Theatre would need a website, the pair decided: www.tiny And Van Gieson, appointed on the spot as Weinstein’s coproducer, would create it, replete with images shot by Van Gieson’s photographer wife, Xina Nicosia, hyperlinks to performance schedules and other information, even witty directors’ notes discussing the challenges and rewards of working with particular ninja actors. Van Gieson also wrote press releases and tackled other business logistics, enabling Weinstein to focus solely on his one-man show.

The first task was to gather a troupe of “actors.” Weinstein already had some ninjas—inch-high, brightly colored fighter figurines bought for twenty-five to fifty cents apiece from vending machines at highway rest stops, movie theatres and other sites. But he would need more. With rolls of quarters, Weinstein built the troupe, amassing pockets full of plastic figures. Van Gieson calls the mass purchases “open calls.” Non-ninjas also nabbed roles, including a spaceship full of Martians as the witches.

They gathered understudies, too, Van Gieson notes. “You need to have a couple of people to step in if an actor is injured during a show,” he says. “Or if there’s a lighting accident and an actor melts.”

And who would play the crucial roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth? Ninjas came close, until Weinstein encountered more effective stars: Mr. and Mrs. Smile, colorful, bubble-headed figures with big grins.

Fringe’s Clancy loved the Smiles. At first, they looked utterly inappropriate, he says. But their appearance quickly enhanced the play’s overriding sense of ambition and doom. “It’s almost as if he’s chosen them in order to provide subtext,” Clancy says. “Mr. Smile is so benign, and then there’s all this stuff coming out.”

The tiny ninjas also worked well onstage, Clancy says. “If you look at them closely, their faces are only half shown. So there’s something theatrical about that. And as warriors, they’re always in an active pose, and that helps. That’s the genius of it, too, the choice of figures. Usually it’s not a surface joke—there’s a lot of thought to it.”

Weinstein also played a role, though not literally, Clancy notes. “Like a sledgehammer, it hits you: Macbeth is being manipulated by forces beyond his control. Here is this black-suited sort of impenetrable person—which is Dov’s persona when he’s performing. There’s something unknowable about it. There’s something he’s withholding from the audience, and that’s fate: here is the power. That’s the sort of puppetry that directly acknowledges the puppeteer, which is very liberating and exciting to watch.”

Macbeth was a hit, selling out all its FringeNYC performances with added standing-room-only tickets, and extending its run. Critics delighted in the adaptation. The Village Voice said, “Performed briskly and with limitless confidence, the show delights with surprising stagings and hilarious bits of literalism.... If Weinstein has a secret weapon, it’s not a shuriken [ninja throwing star], but his enviable acting skills.”

Even Weinstein was surprised at the reception. “I was quite taken aback by the audience’s laughter,” he recalls. “It hadn’t occurred to me how funny it was. My main concern was that people would not be willing to take that first step with me. The first question is, ‘Are you going to enter that world?’ If you’re unwilling to take that first step, then no matter what the answers to the other questions are, you’re not going to enjoy it as a play.”

Weinstein’s FringeNYC success led quickly to gigs at other festivals, like Piccolo Spoleto in Charleston, South Carolina., Charlotte Shout! in North Carolina, and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, as well as shows in Sweden and Germany.

Michael Matz, producer of Germany’s Långa Näsan, says he was intrigued by the craziness of Dov’s proposal, a contrast to European puppetry, which is usually more serious. He booked it sight unseen, sure that it would sell out quickly because it was so unusual. But until he saw it, he was skeptical about its artistic merit.

“Dov’s use of the puppets alone wouldn’t have saved him if his use of Shakespeare’s text hadn’t been equally good,” says Matz, who hopes to lure Romeo and Juliet to his theatre this spring. “What I remember about his technique was his ability in simply handling these small figures, and of course the mass scenes were very striking, but most of all that the illusion really worked: you started immediately to listen to the ninjas and Mr. and Mrs. Smile, forgetting all about Dov.”

In Charleston, Tiny Ninja Theatre is now all the rage, with fans talking about it constantly, says Brandy Rucker, of Theatre 99, which hosted the show. “Although the production is performed by plastic ninjas and dime store merchandise, there is nothing cheap about it,” Rucker says. “The story is performed in such an intelligent and creative way that it makes Shakespeare appealing to all types of people. That makes it a business and artistic success: attracting all types of audience members and impressing the pants off of them.”

When he returned to New York, Weinstein began creating additional Ninja shows, including The Effects of Nuclear War, based on a 1979 unpublished government manuscript that Weinstein found in a bookstore, Election 2000, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, A Brief History of DUMBO, created for Brooklyn’s 2000 DUMBO Art Under the Bridge Festival, and Romeo and Juliet.

More local and remote gigs followed, culminating in the Washington, D.C. performances of Romeo and Juliet in January, which earned critical acclaim in the Washington Post and extended its run. The show is currently back in New York running at the Bowery Poetry Club through mid-May.

Weinstein didn’t choose Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet simply because they’re popular, though their familiarity to audiences is a contributing factor, as are the strengths of Shakespeare’s language, characters and plot, he says. The plays also work well because they feature few enough lead characters that the audience won’t have trouble telling them apart.

“When you’re working on this scale and you’re dealing with figures that look similar in a lot of cases, and you have one person doing the voices, there’s a limited number of distinctions that people can keep in mind and remember,” Weinstein says.

Ideal ninja plays must also have one overarching narrative, enabling it to be abridged easily to ninja length of under an hour, he says. “A lot of Shakespeare’s plays, and a lot of plays in that era, work on a main hero’s plotline, and then a secondary plotline with comic or low characters,” says Weinstein. “That’s no good.”

Comedies won’t work, either, he adds. “There’s no point in doing a comedy with tiny ninjas, because one of the great things about tiny ninjas is the juxtaposition, the contrast between the large scenes, characters and tragedies and the minuteness, some would say banality, of the ninjas themselves. That contrast is part of the experience of the play. So to do a fluff comedy with them is to do the same thing twice.”

Weinstein likens his ninjas to any acting troupe. He has to consider their strengths and faults when selecting plays. “It sounds stupid, but I’m involved in a collaboration, because my actors are who they are more powerfully than any live actor,” he says. “They refuse to be molded or shaped or changed in any way. They are in some ways the most rigorous partners one could choose, the most unforgiving partners, because they are absolutely committed to being who they are and to doing what they do.”

Consequently, Weinstein is careful when expanding his company, which now numbers in the hundreds. Fans and friends constantly offer him new figurines, but not just any doll will do. A Barbie, for instance, besides being too tall, has a history of connotations and controversy that would imbue any role she tried to play. But he did cast a Star Wars Princess Leia doll as Hillary Clinton and a Dr. Doom doll as Rudy Giuliani in his Election 2000, fully aware of the implications.

“You have to ask yourself, ‘What do these actors do best?’” says Weinstein. “Every actor likes to think of himself as total chameleon who can play any part at any time in any place and be magnificently different in everything. But it’s not true. People are better at some things than they are at others. So you ask yourself, ‘These are my performers, these tiny ninjas or figurines: what do they do well and what do they not do well? How can I edit a text to play to their strengths?’”

Weinstein calls his editing policy “incredibly conservative.” He keeps plays to under an hour in part because he, as puppeteer, must memorize the whole text, and in part because audiences are unlikely to want to watch the ninjas for longer than that.

“My policy is to not change anything, which is to say not to reorder scenes, not to assign lines to characters that they’re not assigned to in the text. Not to do anything at all except remove sections of the text as delicately as I possibly can. A lot of ‘abridgements’ or whatever are really adaptations of the play, which I’m not trying to do. I’m trying to do the best production of this play that I can, given the circumstances I’m in.”

Dramatic monologues and soliloquies are the greatest challenge for the inanimate ninjas, says Weinstein. But they excel in crowd scenes and battles, which are usually “lame” in human theatre productions, he says. Decapitating a ninja is easy, and they can pummel each other without limit. As for crowd scenes, Weinstein has one gang in Romeo and Juliet glued to the bill of a baseball cap atop his head.

Weinstein’s ingenious approaches are especially intriguing to theatre professionals, who often flock to his shows. He can tell when they’re out there simply by their responses. Knowing the plays already, they anticipate hurdles and delight in his solutions to them. They also scrutinize the ninjas’ portrayals. “I’ve gotten performance feedback, people saying, ‘Oh, we’ve done a production of Macbeth, and our Lady Macbeth was like this, and your Lady Macbeth was more like that, and I thought that was interesting,’” Weinstein says. “They’ll talk about acting choices.”

Weinstein isn’t sure what his next production will be, though he’s certain there will be one. For now, he’s excited that Romeo and Juliet has earned a New York run, so he can be a working New York actor again, on his own terms.

“When this started, I thought, ‘Okay, this is going to be a fun project. I’ll do it in the festival, it’ll run for two weeks and then I’ll go back to the business of doing what I do.’ But this has shown me that the way to do what you want to do is in fact to just do it. If that sounds like a life lesson, maybe it is. As Yoda says, ‘You do or you do not; there is no try.’”

Orla Swift is a theatre critic for the Raleigh News & Observer and a regular contributor to this magazine.

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