Set in various locations centered around the Lower East Side, the New York International Fringe Festival is like a theatrical carnival. From August 16 to 27, there are shows at all hours of the day, all days of the week--and they run the gamut in genre, length, and content. I caught three shows--Tiny Ninja Theater's , and Little Green Man--during the first two days of the festival, the sum of which proves that the Fringe adds up to more than your average one-show theater experience.

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Tiny Ninja Macbeth

After some these shows you find yourself walking out shaking your head, saying, "Only at the Fringe." Tiny Ninja Theater's Macbeth is a prime example.

It is Shakespeare's shortest play, made even shorter, and performed by tiny ninjas. Yes, tiny plastic ninjas; I kid you not.

In the program notes, director Dov Weinstein states, "I had noticed that there were these tiny plastic ninjas in vending machines all across the city, but no one was using them to perform classical theater. Something had to be done." Interestingly, this is a case where the premise is much funnier than the performance. But I don't mean that as a slight.

Weinstein is a marvel, maneuvering dozens of tiny ninjas (and other assorted figurines), while simultaneously executing quick lighting and scene changes. And doing so while reciting the characters' lines. Weinstein did this all sitting down behind a small table which served as the stage, as the audience sat up close and crowded around to watch the play.

The show was a tour de force, and Weinstein's skilled performance overshadowed the amusement factor. He could have easily played the whole thing for laughs, but rather than turning the performance into a high-concept version of little boys playing battle with toys, he acts as a puppeteer, moving the figures under the table with magnets or his own deft hands.

Apparently Tiny Ninja Theater productions of Three Sisters and Desire Under the Elms are also in the works. Their Macbeth has so far been the hit of the Fringe--with tickets in high demand--and so the signs indicate that Tiny Ninja Theater could be moving on to bigger and better things soon. Of course, the question is: Can they do such tiny theater on a grander scale? I have no doubt that Dov Weinstein will find a way.

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Finally

In light of his phenomenal work in the ensemble documentary play The Laramie Project, I shouldn't have been surprised that Stephen Belber's Finally would be such a brilliant piece of work. But it's always a pleasant experience to come across a story so skillfully crafted and told.

A solo piece about the brutal murder of a football coach, Finally is told from the point-of-view of four characters. Belber played the four parts himself in the 1997 workshop of the play, but here actress Katie Firth takes on the roles. Firth does very well playing one woman, two men, and a very unexpected fourth character in the drama. The story unfolds through each consecutive monologue, as the complicated history and depth of the characters' relationships, motivations, and fates are revealed. Belber's writing is tight, funny, and warm, with the words only occasionally becoming a bit too poetic for the characters saying them.

Each monologue is better than the one before, and the drama's intensity increases as we get deeper into the hearts of these people. By the end of the show I found myself leaning far forward, anxiously awaiting every word. Finally is a fascinating and poignant story, and in a time where it is becoming more and more difficult to distinguish one kitchen sink drama from another, it's refreshing to encounter a new kind of story. Belber and Firth take us along on the unique life journey that these four characters share, uncovering their darkest passions, treating them with great understanding, and offering redemption for us all.

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Little Green Man

Verm (Dominic Orlando), an alien discovered by the U.S. government after his spacecraft crashed, has been kept in captivity for 50 years. He's been questioned endlessly, and left to watch hours upon hours of television. When we meet him, he is for the first time encountering his new charge, a government agent named Parker (Hope Garland). It seems that decades of being trapped in a room in front of a television has finally gotten to Verm, making him very uncooperative. Answering Parker's questions in roundabout ways, or not at all, he plays mind games with her, leaving her in doubt of he and his people's true intentions and capabilities.

Little Green Man is more of a dramatic sketch than a play. The piece has many good moments, but ultimately it feels incomplete. The ending is abrupt, and it's hard to get a sufficient sense of what has been going on for the years that Verm has been held by the government. But the Fringe is just the sort of venue for theatrical experimentation, and perhaps No Pants Theatre Co. and writer Orlando will be able to do more with the play in the future. At 25 minutes, it is successful as a short piece that shows the inevitable confrontation between captive and captor, and leaves us to wonder which is truly which.