Vending-machine Hamlet

Flush from such past successes as 'Macbeth,' Tiny Ninja Theater returns with Shakespeare's tragic antihero.

When you enter the theatrical world created by Dov Weinstein, you have to be ready to accept a few things:

• That a jewelry box can be a house.

• That a glass of water can be a brook.

• That an inch-high plastic ninja can play Hamlet.

Shakespeare probably didn't have a toy in mind for the title role when he penned his vengeful tale. But that was before a frustrated, 20-something actor decided it was time someone performed classical theater with a cast that can fit in a suitcase.

Tiny Ninja Theater - now an international touring company - is presenting its latest production at Performance Space 122 (PS122) in Manhattan this month. "Hamlet" is the third major Shakespeare work the plastic cast has taken on, having already conquered "Macbeth" and "Romeo and Juliet" since its debut in 2000. A simple principle guides the troupe: "There are no small parts, only small actors."

"They don't complain, they're very hard workers," deadpans Mr. Weinstein on opening night, Oct. 28, after shedding the dark shirt and overalls he wears over street clothes for the performance. "Sometimes you can push them too hard. But they'll leave you in the lurch, too.... If I forget a line, they're not going to cue me, you know?"

For each production, Weinstein condenses Shakespeare's text, "casts" the ninjas and assorted dime-store figures, and voices all the characters. As a one-man operation, he also must move the figures around on a series of small sets. His theatrical creations are part of a trend in combining puppetry and stage productions, but they also introduce Shakespeare to people who might not otherwise see it. The shows appeal to opera lovers and children, acting pros and schoolteachers.

"It's not just a gimmick. It makes Shakespeare so accessible. And [Weinstein's] abridgement is unbelievable. He really tells the story in many ways better than some [full] productions," says Brandy Sullivan, one of the founders of The Have Nots! Comedy Improv, a Charleston, S.C., group that helps select theater performers for that city's Piccolo Spoleto Festival each year. They've twice tapped Weinstein, in 2001 and 2002. "[His] is a very unique and important adaptation," she adds.

Weinstein's partnership with the ninjas grew out of his frustration with the New York acting scene. He arrived with hopes of doing collaborative physical theater, but ended up trying to make a living as an actor. He wasn't satisfied with the quality of work he was doing or with the opportunities. So he decided to try something different.

"I was always interested in original work, original puppetry, and that sort of thing," he says. "I saw these tiny ninjas in vending machines outside bodegas, supermarkets ... and no one was using them to do classical theater. So I sort of took it upon myself."

The idea went from concept to reality when he applied to perform "Macbeth" with tiny ninjas for the 2000 New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC). He was accepted, and quit an office job to create the show.

Having his brightly colored figures perform tragedies, rather than comedy, was an obvious choice, he explains. "I think they're only good at drama," he says of his players. "Because one of the things that makes Tiny Ninja Theater what it is, is the contrasts."

Not that he doesn't aim to get a few laughs in his productions. In "Romeo and Juliet," for example, he opens a special set to reveal the masquerade dance, complete with miniature disco ball. "He kind of winks at the audience," Ms. Sullivan says.

For the production of "Hamlet," he is trying something a little different. In the past, people were handed toy binoculars to watch the dramatic events unfold over the course of 40 minutes or so on a tabletop or ironing board. But now he's working with video cameras and TV monitors to magnify the action on a series of small sets, some of which are obscured from view. It means his audience can expand beyond 15 or 25 people up to the 190 people who can fit in a venue he'll play in Seattle in May. It also means the performances are more complicated.

On opening night in New York, Weinstein was still working out the kinks with the new show - such as keeping track of each figure's position among different sets as he voices the lines.

But his unusual technique, and incorporation of his own body into the work (he puts the Hamlet ninja in his opened mouth, for example, to signal the arrival of the ghost of Hamlet's father) is not lost on the audience. Nor is the entertainment value of being surprised by what figures and everyday objects he'll unveil next.

"I thought it was completely charming," says Cheryl Henson, daughter of late puppeteer Jim Henson, who attended the first night. "He's referencing all the classic moments and getting the whole story across. But I think that the show probably is stronger for people who are somewhat familiar with the text already and are interested in seeing a playoff of it."

Ms. Henson is president of the Jim Henson Foundation, which provided a grant to PS122 to present Weinstein's work.

"He really is a favorite of a lot of the people who enjoy object theater," she says. "A lot of people like to call it object theater, instead of puppetry, particularly when it's done like this, where objects are playing the parts."

When the actors are plastic, rather than human, it allows people to hear the language of the play in a new way, says Weinstein.

Instead of audiences being distracted by the actors - is he too short to be Hamlet, are his clothes appropriate - they can concentrate on what's being said. But it does require people to accept the conceit of his world, that a toy is a character.

Some people don't.

"I've had audiences like that," admits Weinstein. "We've had reviews where people said, 'He seems to be very engaged in what he was doing, but I don't have any notion of what that was.' "

He chose to take on the high-tech challenge of his latest show because he wondered if it was possible to do, much in the same way he wondered if he could pull off that first production of "Macbeth" with inch-high plastic ninjas in FringeNYC.

Back then, he thought, "I'll do this show for a month, and then I'll go back to being an actor. It'll be fun," he explains. "But to my surprise and delight, it really took off. And we've been doing it ever since."

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