Tiny Ninja Shakespeare!

When it comes to quotability, no one, but no one, beats the Bard.

In the very paper you now hold in your hands, for instance, it wouldn’t be out of the question to find allusions to Shakespeare in stories on any number of subjects — a nod to Hamlet’s “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” in a piece on ethics scandal, say, or perhaps a headline invoking Julius Caesar’s famous dogs of war. Such is the nature of the man’s genius:
His canon is so expansive, and his verse so elegant, that his words can be bent to virtually any purpose.

Neither has Shakespeare suffered, over the years, from any dearth of skilled performers to bring those words to life. Indeed, certain actors have largely staked their careers on interpreting his plays; limiting ourselves to the modern era, that list includes luminaries like Kenneth Branagh, Dame Judi Dench and Sir Laurence Olivier.

It does not include — at least not yet — New York City puppeteer Dov Weinstein and his, um, castmates: an army of inch-high plastic figurines. Most of these are ninjas, though in the show I see, a production of Macbeth at the Kennedy Center Monday night, both the title character and Lady Macbeth are portrayed by slightly larger toys for which the playbill provides only “Mr. Smiley” and “Mrs. Smiley” as names. Where the ninjas are mean-looking little buggers, what with the shrouded faces and throwing stars, Mr. and Mrs. Smiley are modeled on that “Have a Nice Day” T-shirt that was all the rage in the mid-’90s. With their big, dopey grins, you’d think this was a happily married couple.

Ah, but there’s the rub. It has become fashionable, in recent years, to refigure Shakespearean drama in some radical way or other — the soliloquy-spouting gangstas of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet come to mind — so much so that we must by now be wary of any gimmickry entering into what are (lest we forget) hallowed texts. Against this backdrop, a staging as outlandish as Weinstein’s runs the risk of cheapening Macbeth — and thus of dissing Big Will.

Weinstein avoids that trap by showcasing what can be described only as a fanatical devotion to Shakespeare’s verse. Sure, he understands the kitschy absurdity of his take on Macbeth; that much is evident both from the director’s note included in the playbill, in which he lavishes praise on his “actors,” and from the knowing, ironic pause he allows after a line like “All is but toys.” But if his premise is absurd, his execution is anything but.

To see a Tiny Ninja Theater production is, really, to see two shows. One occurs on a giant projector-screen hung at the front of the room and includes only the action of the play: the plastic figurines, here blown up to epic proportions, being manipulated by two barely visible black-gloved hands and given voices, many voices, by someone out of the picture.

Arguably the more interesting choice is to watch Weinstein himself. A doughy, bespectacled man-child clad entirely in black save for a pair of butter-colored workman’s boots, Weinstein sits on a folding chair behind the desktop that serves as the stage for his performance. He is framed by a mini-proscenium, from which hang varicolored lights. To his left is a rickety table covered in action figures — his extras. While their expressions remain static throughout his performance, his is a different story entirely. Weinstein has memorized each character’s every line, providing a different timbre and mode of intonation for each (Macbeth, deadly serious, falls somewhere in between Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader); his face alternately contorts, twists, furrows and relaxes in all the ways his characters’ cannot.

To watch Weinstein at work can be a bit uncomfortable, so wholly does he lose himself in his characters. It can feel like spying on a boy playing at some embarrassing game he should’ve long outgrown.

Then again, that’s probably precisely why his performance of Macbeth, on a lovely, temperate summer’s eve, was such a hit:
The guy buys into what he’s doing so completely, so unapologetically, that it’s hard not to leave the performance feeling as though you’ve just borne witness to a wildly inventive new take on the time-honored material. Is what Weinstein’s doing weird? Sure. But in all the right ways.