Art thou not Romeo, and a . . . little plastic toy?
Yes, the star-crossed lovers of Shakespeare's romantic tragedy are reborn as pinkie-size action figures, thanks to director Dov Weinstein and his "Tiny Ninja Theater Presents Romeo & Juliet." Perched on tables and an ironing board set up about five feet from the audience at the Warehouse Theatre, the figurines are manipulated by Weinstein in an abridged but verbatim version of the play.
It's all here: The Capulet ball (which literally unfolds in a shoe box), Friar Laurence's cell (a metal first-aid kit), the streets of Verona (an all-white cardboard backdrop, very 1970s), even the balcony scene. Weinstein helpfully attaches a piece of wire to bulbous-headed Romeo's super-blond coif so that he really can scale Juliet's orchard walls and declare his love.
What can you say? It's cute. Remember being 8 years old, your soldiers or Matchbox cars or assorted dolls spread out before you, and you gave them all voices? What power you wielded over the universe on your bedroom floor! This in essence is Weinstein's act, except his voices are probably much more eloquent than anything your or my little brain could have come up with.
The director, who is based in New York, developed his idea for toy classical theater in 1999, after discovering the miniature plastic likenesses of ninjas in vending machines. (He augmented the company with other types of figures.) His inaugural production, "Tiny Ninja Theater Presents Macbeth," was a hit the following year at the New York International Fringe Festival, and the rest is very silly history. The company's motto? But of course: "No small parts, only small actors."
Dressed solemnly in puppeteer's white, Weinstein does anything but fade into the background. In a funny bit, he arrives onstage bearing a pair of identical white boxes, and begins: "Two households, both alike in dignity." Over the course of about 45 minutes, at a pace that seems neither too rushed nor too leisurely, he smoothly recites the pared-down text. The Romeo and Juliet dolls are a matched set of wide-eyed children; the Nurse is a smiley-face doll with a headdress and long train, a parody of the character in Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 movie version; the firebrand Tybalt is a Bruce Lee action figure and the Apothecary, who supplies Romeo with his fateful dram of poison, is a skeleton. (Ninjas play many of the other roles.)
Though there are mock-serious touches -- theatergoers are handed dime-store opera glasses as they enter -- Tiny Ninja Theater is not a mocking enterprise. The opportunities to snicker are few. The fun is all in the props Weinstein comes up with, and the ways in which he stage-manages his flea circus of a spectacle. The balcony scene is actually quite sweet; Weinstein makes them a gentle and ardent couple. And the final sequence, in Capulet's tomb (a converted guitar case) is the smartest in the production. Still, the crowd scenes are not as artfully embroidered as one might have expected. The climactic deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt are low rather than high points; somehow, Weinstein missed the chance to come up with an inspired way of killing them off.
But that's okay. Tiny Ninja Theater, running through tomorrow as part of the inaugural Warehouse Comedy Festival, strives for a more mellow kind of coolness. Once you've seen its "Romeo & Juliet," you'll want to come to back for figurine versions of "Hamlet" or "Othello" or whatever else. In other words, collect the whole set.
Tiny Ninja Theater Presents Romeo & Juliet, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Dov Weinstein. With Weinstein and various inch-high plastic ninja and smiley-face dolls. Approximately 45 minutes. Through tomorrow at Warehouse Theatre, 1021 Seventh St. NW. Call 202-783-3933.