Teddy Bear Terror

In the summer of 2006, Clifford Chase’s debut novel, Winkie, was published. Chase, who had previously gained acclaim for his 1999 memoir, The Hurry-Up Song, about losing his brother to AIDS, wove a weird and wonderful tale about a sentient 81-year-old teddy bear who is put on trial for being a mad bomber. In the post 9/11 age, Winkie shrewdly depicted the ridiculousness of the knee-jerk reactions prevalent in the War on Terror, when innocent people were rounded up and mistreated simply because of their race or religion. Winkie, a true minority of one, is charged with a laundry list of 9,678 offenses, including witchcraft and sodomy.

The teddy bear at the center of this storm is himself a wise innocent surrounded by cartoon character representations of cruel jailers, showboating prosecutors, corrupt judges, and grandstanding “patriots.” The joke, of course, is that Winkie is the most human of all.

Now playing in the intimate Theater C at 59E59, Winkie as adapted by playwright Matt Pelfrey, successfully captures the ludicrousness of this stuffed animal spectacle. However, unfortunately, the stage version of the story pales in comparison to the mythical and magical original source material.

The Drama Desk-winning Godlight Theatre Company is well-known for bringing theatrical life to both modern and classical literature. Last year’s In the Heat of the Night received heaps of critical praise, including a rave review from offoffonline.

But the Godlight's Winkie makes a few crucial missteps in bringing the tale of teddy bear terrorism to the stage, including a completely different ending from the one in the book. As helmed by Godlight Artistic Director Joe Tantalo, the 90-minute show has an over-the-top energy that sometimes suits, but also sometimes clashes with the skewering satire. The characters and situations are already cartoonish and need little stylistic embellishment to register as such.

The framing of the story as a 48 Hours or 60 Minutes exposé of the trial after the fact is an ingenious way to structure the play. However, a major problem lies in the casting of the show. Hiring an Englishman (Elliot Hill) who does not tamp down his accent to play an American talking head is a mistake — as is naming the character after MSNBC’s real-life legal analyst Dan Abrams. Winkie does not need verisimilitude — it instead lives by its unrealness and sense of the nonsensical.

In addition, changing the character of Françoise Fouad to a New Zealander to accommodate the actress playing her robs the originally Egyptian Françoise of all political, social, and moral relevance (especially considering current events in Northern Africa). Although her performance is one of the standouts in the show, the miscast Geraldine Johns as the Muslim nurse who befriends the hospitalized teddy bear is all wrong for the part. An actor should adapt to the role — not the other way around.

As the stuttering court-appointed lawyer assigned to defend Winkie, Adam Kee comes closest to capturing the spirit of the novel with his spot-on portrayal of the not-so-ironically named Charles Unwin, as does Michael Shimkin as the also cleverly christened Judge Feeble Newman. And Nick Paglino in the dual role of Clifford Chase/Winkie is properly cuddly with his boyish good looks and unshaven scruff.

The largest problem lies with the bear itself. The prop used in the show looks fresh from the shelves — neither ratty nor patched up as a well-used octogenarian toy should be. And where are his open-and-shut, blinking eyes that give not only the bear himself but also the title of the book and play its name?

As a fan of the novel Winkie, perhaps I am being too hard on the play Winkie. There are some genuine laughs and the timeliness of the show in this politically-charged and paranoid era couldn’t be better. But I had hoped for more from a piece based on a source that so masterfully melds social critique with surrealism. Clifford Chase's Winkie plays more like an extended version of The Jerry Springer Show than a scathing retort to the xenophobic times we live in.

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