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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NextMarch, 2001
All is But Toys
by Derek Armstrong

From classical theater to modern political commentary, small actors are taking on some pretty big parts.

You walk into the 70-seat black box theater and receive... a pair of binoculars.

In the early moments of Macbeth, you recognize the lead... from the gumball machine at your local five and dime.

NextWith what some are considering a full-scale revival of a centuries-old tradition, these strange sights might soon become more common. That tradition is toy theater, and two popular engagements in New York City last fall identified what might be a genuine appetite for miniature theater performed by plastic figurines and cardboard cutouts.

In August, puppeteer Dov Weinstein premiered his version of Macbeth at the New York International Fringe Festival, under the name Tiny Ninja Theater. Before a seating capacity of only 10 people, Weinstein used his own voice and dozens of inch-high toy ninjas purchased from vending machines to reenact one of Shakespeare's bloodiest tragedies. Audiences found the show so beguiling that word-of-mouth kept it playing through the end of December at the Present Company Artspace. In November, Great Small Works, in conjunction with HERE Art Center's Dream Music Puppetry Program, held its fifth installment of the International Toy Theater Festival over three weekends, gathering masters of miniature from all corners. With everything from tiny characters performing on matchbook stages to a ticking metronome that danced through the air, the performers delivered provocative messages unique to the reduced format.

"It's interesting for us to see this old form and how we can reinvent it," says John Bell, a puppeteer and spokesman for Great Small Works, the New York-based collective of performance artists formed in 1995 to explore theatrical social commentary on a small scale and budget. "While you're watching it, you're aware that this piece of paper being moved by somebody's hand is actually effective."

It certainly captivated 18th- and 19th-century European audiences, who delighted at the miniature performance of such grand spectacles as dances, battle scenes, and high drama. Flat figures cut from cardboard filled out the dramatis personae, moving among tiny sets and props of similar design. Great Small Works honors that tradition, developing segments of its ongoing series, called Toy Theater of Terror As Usual, mostly with cardboard cutouts that pass under a TV sized proscenium arch. Tiny Ninja Theater gives the format a twist, but more accurately reflects our current notion of what constitutes a "toy," with dimestore plastic ninjas. Both end up being very technical operations, as they depend on props that must be manipulated in specific ways with great mechanical accuracy.

Weinstein knows a thing or two about how tricky it is. Sitting over the Macbeth setup, its breifcase-sized stage at waist level, Weinstein had to put all his extremities to good use. Because his hands were busy clearing or repopulating the stage with sets, ninjas and other players (the two leads were slightly larger and more whimsical figurines, known as Mr. and Mrs. Smile), Weinstein operated his two flood (for daytime) and blue light (for nighttime) with his bare toes. "It was important to me that the show was self-contained, and that everything be live," he explains. When he did have a free hand, Weinstein would use a pen light as a spotlight, a so-called "push light" to simulate the weird sisters' cauldron, and a red laser pointer to indicate blood. All of these he had purchased at the hardware store. "If I had fancy lighting, it would have detracted immensely from the performance," says Weinstein. "There's something about the grand spectacle that can be created using the lowest tech means."

He did spend up a little for his sound system - a Sekaku PAS 767 headset microphone and amplifier - in the interest of delivering the truncated text with crisp diction. (The show ran only 40 minutes, but that still would have taxed his vocal cords without amplification, especially during the Fringe Festival, when he performed 21 shows in 12 days). But the rest of his stage was outfitted quite literally with things he found in the trash. Weinstein built castle turrets out of milk cartons and hung his lights on a metal frame that had been discarded from someone's closet.

Given the absurd scale, the show got its share of laughs at various points. Weinstein was initially taken aback by this - "I approached it very seriously," he deadpans - but soon grew to recognize the laughter as appreciative of his clever solutions, such that he would miss hearing it when he had a more academic audience. What provided Weinstein his greatest challenge - and what tickled the audience's funny bone - was how to technically meet the demands of the text, given the limitations of his medium. In the banquet scene, the guests are required to stand and sit several times, so Weinstein glued sitting and standing versions of each character on a cardboard sheet that he could rotate back and forth. Similarly, he attached ninjas to a fan that would open and close, so he could conceal and reveal an approaching army, which would move together in a convoy. In another interesting innovation, he created the illusion of independent movement by fixing magnets to characters' feet, then moving them across stage with the help of a second magnet that he held underneath stage. Cleverly, he also used the magnets to repel each other, magically knocking over his ninjas to dramatic effect.

The unexpected popularity of Tiny Ninja Theater is prompting Weinstein to consider a follow-up. "Originally, there was no next step," he says. "Now, I have a feeling that I need to do another one, just to see. Does it lose it's novelty? I have to answer that question. Convenience store owners everywhere, stock up your vending machines.

Great Small Works also uses all manner of household items in its shows, giving further credence to the idea of toy theater as a do-it-yourself art form. "All you need is cardboard, glue and a matte knife," says Bell, outlining the simplicity with which characters are created. "We use coat hangers or umbrella spokes for rods. Then you just need a photocopying machine and some interesting images." Bell recalls one instance in which they clipped a newspaper photo of a woman in a Greek theater, and repeated it twentyfold to form a two-dimensional Greek chorus.

Although Great Small Works itself was not an entity until 1995, the first Toy Theater Of Terror As Usual was performed in response to the events building into the Gulf War. "We used the images of mass media that we got from the newspaper and kind of reconstituted them into a critique of that political situation," explains Bell, who teaches theater history at Emerson College in Boston. The 10th installment of that series, "Stormy Weather," ran at the toy theater festival in November. It featured such diverse elements as a windblown highway scene, in which toy telephone polls were buffeted by a fan as they receded into a backdrop photograph; articulated arms being pulled out of boxes of Altoids mints; a snake-like extension cord hunting among a sea of wall outlets and the aforementioned metronome on strings. The messages are abstract, often accompanied by excerpts of song, dialogue or poetry. A half-dozen puppeteers gather around the small proscenium stage, manipulating the images. And it's not just politics - the group and various offshoots have done dramatic texts ranging from War And Peace to Faust to The Illiad.

"One aspect of toy theater that's very intriguing is that you can do it anywhere," says Bell. "You could do it in somebody's home." In fact, he says, Great Small Works has a standing interest in doing a tour of living rooms. How and where this would occur remains to be seen, but the group has prior experience performing in such settings.

Other groups interpreted the toy theater festival as broadly as one might imagine. While Vermont's Unbarring the Door Theater Company engaged in a more traditional show about an immigrant Swedish family, using, an interesting interplay of figures and silhouettes, Laura Heit of Chicago presented a variety of vignettes with characters created from matches and small drawings, by turns cute and morbid. This latter had to be projected on a video screen - especially since not everyone got binoculars at the door. "The funny thing is that when you start looking through binoculars, the scale disappears and it's as though you were at the opera," says Bell.

Whether it will ever gain the popularity of opera remains to be seen - and both Bell and Weinstein frankly doubt it. More realistically, they consider it a valuable form with profound meaning for the select audience that seeks it out, practicable by amateurs on a small budget. "We had two workshops during the festival," says Bell. "The first one, a lot of kids came. The second was over 90 percent adults. More than anything, it interests us to inspire other people to work in the form."

To learn more about the International Toy Theater Festival, contact Great Small Works at 315 West 86th Street, #4E, New York, NY 10024, or by phone at 212-787-8457 or 718-499-0914. To reach Tiny Ninja Theater, call Dov Weinstein at 212-769-8448

© 2001 Stage Directions Magazine

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