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Profound novelty: Tiny Ninja Theater’s Hamlet.

Plastic Fantastic Theater

By James Yeara

Hamlet

By William Shakespeare,

Directed by Dov Weinstein

Woodstock Fringe Festival

Byrdcliffe Theatre, Woodstock, through Aug. 20

‘There are no small parts, only small actors.”—Tiny Ninja Theater credo.

Hamlet is played by a red, one-inch-tall plastic ninja with a grappling hook forever poised to be flung into action: I think it is metaphorically perfect for Hamlet.

Claudius is “played” by Derek Smile, slightly taller, much wider and much whiter than the ninja Hamlet, vaguely Casper-the-ghost-shaped with black eyes and a black smile. Gertrude is played by Mrs. Smile, presumably wife of Derek, only she has on a blue dress and wears a pink rubber ribbon on her head. Ophelia is played by Daphne Hipchikz, which is self-descriptive. She’s a babe, as far as plastic brunette toys go. The Ghost of Hamlet’s father is a black ninja inside Tiny Ninja Theater artistic director Dov Weinstein’s mouth.

Which is symbolically perfect because Tiny Ninja Theater’s Hamlet springs from Weinstein’s head, and the show is brilliant. It’s one of the best Hamlets I’ve ever seen, and the only area Hamlet that next plays in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England, as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s yearlong celebration of the complete works of the world’s greatest playwright. Having years ago caught a SoHo Hamlet Festival where, in addition to people, sock puppets, shadows, and—in a bit of breed-blind casting—a golden retriever played the melancholy great Dane (like most actors playing Hamlet, she got half of what the role demands: the playful energy, but not the intellectual depth), Tiny Ninja Theater’s Hamlet is not just a fringy gimmick.

Tiny Ninja Theater’s Hamlet uses the 1603 “Bad Quarto” Hamlet as the acting text. Many of Shakespeare’s plays from his lifetime have multiple printed texts; modern editors pick and choose among them. This version preserves the shortness of the quarto version versus the folio and the sometimes-different names (“Corambis” instead of “Polonius”). This is a smart production, not just clever for cleverness’ sake. It’s a unique slant on the most famous of plays, made more unique by those plastic ninjas of many colors.

Seen occasionally on TV monitors and on three black raised acting areas, Weinstein creates all the voices for the 33 characters in Tiny Ninja Theater’s Hamlet. Remarkably, all 33 are distinct, uni que, memorable, and well-enunciated, even the lisping Laertes. By manipulating the ninjas and the other plastic dolls on the various acting areas and the two monitors, Weinstein keeps the focus on the characters, and in his dark blue overalls, monk haircut, glasses and bare feet, he seems to melt into the roles. The audience laughs with the sheer audacity of the concept and the changing stage pictures; I defy anyone not to laugh at the drowned Ophelia in a wine glass. The point is that you watch the damn stuff; the most expensively trained and/or famous actors couldn’t create a Hamlet whose characters and plot are clearer or more engaging. By manipulating the tiny video cameras (this is at times like Cops in blank verse) supplying the live feeds to the monitors, Weinstein shifts the focus of the play. Sometimes it’s what Hamlet sees; sometimes what an omnipotent power (the audience from its raised perch overlooking the stage) sees. Most memorable is the point of view of what Corambis sees from behind the arras for the “get thee to a nunnery” scene and, remarkably, before, during, and after Corambis’ death scene hiding in Gertrude’s closet.

This 7-year-old, New York City-based company is a treat for anyone who likes novelty, a sight for anyone who enjoys arresting visuals, and a not-to-be-missed treasure for anyone who loves theater. And if you miss this weekend’s performances at the Woodstock Fringe Festival, your next opportunity is in the town of Shakespeare’s birth; he most assuredly won’t be spinning in his grave. Applauding, yes; spinning, no.

Tuneless The Opposite of Sex

Music and lyrics by Douglas J. Cohen,

Book by Robert Jess Roth and Douglas J. Cohen,

Based on the screenplay by Don Roos,

Directed by Robert Jess Roth

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, Mass., through Aug. 20

 

While Don Roos’ script is the source material for this very unmelodic musical, one feels that the enjoyable 1998 film, directed by Roos, also must have informed some of this adaptation. With memorable performances by Christina Ricci, Martin Donovan and Lisa Kudrow, the film was funny, original and refreshingly wicked. It’s a clever choice of material for musical adaptation, but Cohen and Roth don’t capture enough of the film’s humor. In particular, the shadow of Kudrow’s hilarious yet realistic performance hangs too heavily over this new adaptation. It is never equaled.

Hewing closely to Roos’ plot, the musical is about the havoc created when teenager Dedee Truitt (Kerry Butler) moves in with her gay brother, Bill (a solid Gregg Edelman), and his lover, Matt (a pleasantly naïve David Burka). She beds the latter, gets pregnant, and embarks on a road trip that leaves death and confusion in its wake. A religious fanatic, a policeman, and Bill’s best friend, Lucia (Kaitlin Hopkins in the Kudrow role), are also swept along in Dedee’s reckless and selfish machinations.

A few laughs survive the adaptation, and most of these owe to Kerry Butler, whose dynamic performance of the dismissive and sarcastic Dedee is fully her own and invites no comparison to Ricci. That Butler makes the potentially poisonous character someone with whom we empathize, even as she is railing at us, is one of her many strengths. With a fierce physicality and a confident command of the stage, Butler has loveliness that is nicely juxtaposed with Dedee’s tough exterior. As a singer, she bursts with expression, and almost convinces us that the music matters.

But it doesn’t. Virtually every song sounds like the same mishmash of near-random notes and bland lyrics that feature the most banal and forced of rhymes. In effective musicals, a song usually arises from a need to express oneself in a manner where words alone won’t suffice. In The Opposite of Sex, a song happens just because it seems to be time for one.

A few musical moments, such as “My Dead Ex-Lover,” display a modest wit, but too often we are ahead of the lyrics, and the songs merely kill the show’s pace. Overall, the tone feels lightly upbeat and innocuously the same throughout much of the performance—even a character as sharp as Dedee doesn’t seem to inspire Cohen to write music that appreciably contrasts with the rest of his score. She and Butler deserve better—as do the other actors and audience.

While it initially intrigues, the set is the weakest this year on the Nikos Stage. Derek McLane, who also designed the sterile sets for WTF’s Sweet Bird of Youth (there was no sense of decay), has designed a boxlike environment that gives us three bird’s-eye views (on a false proscenium) of various places where the play’s action takes place. Consisting mainly of smallish buildings that are illuminated from within, it soon becomes a visual bore. Norm Schawb’s lighting is adequate to the task, while Sarah Laux’s costumes are slightly more than such. Of course Laux has better material to work with, as when she costumes Butler for a beach scene, which director Roth stages virtually out of sight unless one happens to be seated in the first three or four rows of the theater.

—Ralph Hammann


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