It doesn’t even start out like a normal puppet show.
The puppeteer — yes, there is a puppeteer — stands behind the table. He lays out a clock, a prayerbook, a pair of smiley-face finger puppets (yes, there are puppets, at least), and a plate of, uh, plastic food and chattering teeth.
And then he begins to speak Aramaic.
“M’amati (From When?)” is the latest production of New York’s Tiny Ninja Theater, a group composed of actor/director/puppeteer Dov Weinstein and about 100 small plastic ninjas, “Mr. Smile” toys and a host of other props with which Weinstein shares the stage. When he talks about his act, he often refers to it in the plural. For example: “Our first show was part of the New York Fringe Festival,” he says, “and when it ended, people kept coming to see us, and we just kept on performing.” We?
“Me and the ninjas,” he explained offhandedly. “It’s not a royal ‘we.’”
The inspiration for his miniature co-stars occurred to Weinstein as he was walking by a 25-cent vending machine, the kind in bodegas and corner stores all over New York City. The idea of using tiny ninjas as puppets seemed like a natural one (to him)—and from there, he tells it, the logical choice was classical Shakespeare theater.
“It really just seemed right,” Weinstein said. “It wasn’t a genius idea, it wasn’t a ‘Eureka.’ It just seemed to flow.”
Their first production, an adaptation of “Macbeth” at the 2000 New York Fringe Festival, was a hit. One invitation led to another, and their repertoire expanded to include more plays, Shakespeare’s sonnets and the occasional political commentary.
Most recently, Weinstein and his miniature cohorts embarked on their most radical departure, and possibly his most personal show to date: a retelling of M’amati, the first part of Berachot, and the first chapter in the Talmud.
In this play, 10 seconds into Weinstein’s soliloquy about the joys of learning Talmud, a voice interrupts: “Whaaat do you think you’re talking about?” It is Weinstein’s hand — with eyes and a mouth — which serves as the skeptical counterpoint to Weinstein’s jittery enthusiasm.
What follows is partly educational, partly comedic and partly just plain breathtaking. Using the Talmud itself as a chorus, he jumps between the words, explaining the meaning behind them — the voices of different rabbis as they argue the latest possible time for saying the nightly Shema — and explaning Weinstein’s own struggle to teach himself to learn Gemara and to be an observant Jew. This show, Weinstein says, is as autobiographical as he’s ever gotten onstage.
Weinstein was born in Madison, Wis. He and his parents moved to Israel when he was 6, and stayed until financial pressure drove them back to America. He grew up speaking Hebrew — “badly,” he noted — and always had a Jewish cultural identity. He graduated Brown with a degree in philosophy, and from there he started acting and directing in different theater companies. En route to the Dublin Fringe Festival one year, Weinstein looked at a calendar and realized he was scheduled to perform on Rosh Hashanah. He called the organizers and rescheduled. Later, on Yom Kippur, he listened to the chief rabbi of Ireland (“the only rabbi of Ireland,” he noted) tell his congregation to look around. “‘These are all the Jews in Ireland,’” Weinstein remembered him saying. “In New York, where I was living, there was always gonna be a synagogue. You didn’t have to fight for it. And it reminded me: If it’s important to you, you have to keep making it important to you.” That’s when he started to become more observant.
Which is why, for Weinstein, “M’amati” seemed like a natural progression. (After all, when you look at tiny plastic ninjas doing theater, don’t you naturally think of rabbis having a talmudic discourse?)
What’s next for Weinstein and all his co-stars? Pretty much anything, if you ask him. “With the Talmud, I could really go anywhere,” he said. “What’s your favorite chapter?”
Matthue Roth is the author of “Never Mind the Goldbergs” (Scholastic), a novel about a Modern Orthodox girl who stars on a TV sitcom. His next book, “Candy in Action,” will be published in the spring.