- Tiny Ninja Hamlet
Among the welter of original and uncanny Shakespeare productions from the past decade, the work of the Tiny Ninja Theatre Company stands, so to speak, tall. Founded in 1999, Tiny Ninja Theatre was the brainchild of director, performer, and Johannes factotum Dov Weinstein. Shortly after moving to New York, Weinstein "noticed there were these tiny plastic ninjas in vending machines all across the city, but no one was using them to perform classical theatre. Something had to be done."
Tiny Ninja Macbeth premiered at the New York Fringe Festival in 2000. Over the next eight years the company would go on to stage Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and The Sonnets. The production of Hamlet opened in New York in 2004, and quickly became a cult hit, earning Weinstein and his miniscule troupe an invitation to perform at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, and at the Shakespeare in Washington [End Page 61] extravaganza in the summer of 2007. Among the delightful surprises this production afforded was a rare opportunity to see and hear the so-called "Bad" First Quarto. Selecting the 1603 Hamlet eased the task of abridging the text, shoe-horning the basic narrative arc into about an hour run-time. Weinstein's oration was remarkably competent, and he modulated his voice for each of the characters without over-doing the falsettos.
From this cursory account, one might be tempted to dismiss the production as nothing more than an irreverent, entertaining shtick. How could plastic figurines without any strings or even manipulable appendages deliver a dynamic performance that would sustain an audience's interest? For Macbeth, Weinstein compensated for the small stature of his troupe by distributing binoculars to audience members. For Hamlet, however, he wielded a hand-held video camera wand, which projected (and magnified) the performance on a huge screen at the rear of the stage. The audience's attention was thus divided between the puppet show and what was essentially a live video broadcast of that puppet show. Weinstein's camera had an astonishing mobility (strangely reminiscent of Olivier's 1948 film), allowing for a number of memorable point-of-view shots. We watched, for instance, the closet scene unfold from the perspective of Corambis behind the arras. A plastic figurine floating in a tilted water glass made for an oddly poignant portrayal of Ophelia's death. The Ghost materialized in between Weinstein's teeth (shot in extreme close-up), as if emerging from a medieval hell-mouth. The presence of an omniscient camera and an omnipotent puppeteer created an appropriate ambiance of surveillance and fatalism which clashed interestingly with the farcical nature of the performance.
It would, for obvious reasons, be hyperbole to claim that Tiny Ninja Hamlet conveyed the full-blown tragic pathos latent in the text. Yet its titillating juxtaposition of the high art of Shakespearean tragedy with the (literally) low art of puppetry suggested that the gulf between them, as well as the gulf between the human and the puppet, is much narrower than is dreamt of in our criticism. [End Page 62]