Chris Head stars as Romeoin Romeo & Juliet
(Photo: Xina Nicosia)
Chris Head stars as Romeo
in Romeo & Juliet
(Photo: Xina Nicosia)
There's something irresistibly charming about seeing Shakespeare's works performed by miniature plastic figurines. Tiny Ninja Theater is currently presenting two of the Bard's greatest works, Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet, in rotating repertory. Director, designer, and performer Dov Weinstein goes beyond the initial cuteness factor to deliver a pair of wildly inventive mini-productions of the plays that are sharply contrasting in mood and style.

The Tiny Ninja MACBETH [sic], a hit at the 2000 New York International Fringe Festival, is the more atmospheric of the two. Weinstein, dressed in black and wearing a head mic, presents a rather dark production complete with moody lighting and evocative sound effects. One of the most striking visuals is the use of a circular light fixture to create the illusion of a gigantic moon setting over a castle rampart.

Weinstein takes his time with these effects, so it's somewhat surprising that MACBETH clocks in at just over half an hour. Obviously, the text of the play has been heavily cut, and yet the arc of Shakespeare's tragedy remains intact. Weinstein, who supplies the voices for each character, is also a pretty good interpreter of the verse; several of Macbeth's monologues are delivered with a gravity belying the fact that the character is played by a round, smiley-faced toy. Weinstein is less successful in bringing to life Lady Macbeth, whose mad scene is delivered quickly in a high-pitched whine that fails to capture the complexity of the character's final moments.

The show's format allows its creator to stage some elaborate effects that would be difficult to pull off in a more traditional production. The three witches, for example, are portrayed as aliens floating about the stage. During one of Lady Macbeth's monologues, one of these aliens hovers over her head, suggesting that the witches are influencing her actions. Although some of the ninjas and other players in this toy theater production are moved around by the use of magnets, Weinstein individually manipulates many of the toys. For example, during the final battle scene, he dumps a bagful of tiny ninjas onto the stage; then, to the accompaniment of an appropriately dramatic sound effect, he has the figure of Macbeth crash down onto this pile of bodies. The sheer power of this moment had audience members clapping in appreciation.

In contrast to the stripped down staging of MACBETH, the Tiny Ninja Romeo & Juliet [sic] features elaborate sets. Most of these are contained in white boxes that Weinstein brings on to establish the different locales. The setting for the masquerade where the two young lovers first meet is a fabulous mirrored ballroom, complete with three miniature disco balls that hang above the setting. Capulet's garden is made up of green plastic silverware, with forks, cups, and spoons creating the illusion of a huge garden that the small figure of Romeo (a blond humanoid toy) walks through. In a stroke of genius, a first aid kit with a giant, red cross emblazoned on the front opens up to show the interior of the church where Friar Lawrence resides.

Members of the Tiny Ninja Theater company(Photo: Xina Nicosia)
Members of the Tiny Ninja Theater company
(Photo: Xina Nicosia)
The lighting of Romeo & Juliet, created through the use of swiveling lamp fixtures, is much brighter than that of MACBETH and establishes an entirely different mood appropriate to the less heavy, more romantic nature of this particular tragedy. Weinstein, dressed all in white, forgoes the head mic for this production and is much more physically present in his interpretations of the various characters. During Romeo and Juliet's respective death scenes, he even allows himself to take on the roles of the star-crossed lovers rather than manipulating their miniature bodies.

Like MACBETH, the Tiny Ninja Romeo & Juliet is abridged, lasting a mere 45 minutes or so. One of the reasons for its brevity is a clever use of multiple body doubles that cut down on scene transitions. When the action shifts to a different locale, Weinstein has a whole new set of toys to play with, rather than having to physically move the same toys from place to place.

Working with these small "actors" does offer some unique challenges. At the performance I attended, Juliet took a suicide leap during the balcony scene, tumbling to the ground in a most ignominious fashion. She was retrieved by the audience member seated next to me, and the play continued with minimal disruption. According to the program notes, Tiny Ninja Theater is currently working on toy theater adaptations of Chekhov's Three Sisters and Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms. This may be a joke, but if Dov Weinstein's MACBETH and Romeo & Juliet are so entertaining, who knows what else Weinstein is capable of doing?