nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 11, 2011
When I was a little boy—young enough to nuzzle up against a beloved teddy bear every night—I wanted to be President. This was a time when being President was about as noble a thing as you could want to be, before Nixon and Watergate sullied American politics and cynicism replaced hopeful optimism as the melody line of the American Tune. It was a time when that teddy bear was enough to make me feel fundamentally safe at home, before the hostages spent 400+ days in Iran and before the World Trade Center came tumbling down.
That bear, and the world he represented, are mourned in Matt Pelfrey's new play Winkie. Which may sound odd, because the play is fundamentally a bitter satire of post-9/11 paranoia and our media-obsessed age; and it's a pretty funny satire at that, inspired by the novel of the same name by Clifford Chase. But underneath the well-earned potshots at the likes of Chris Matthews and Michele Bachmann is a strong strain of melancholy. To get to this scary, slippery place where America now finds itself, what has been lost? Can we ever get it back?
Winkie tells the story of a teddy bear (named Winkie) who is arrested and tried as the master mind of a global terrorist network. While the charges seem indubitably untrue and trumped up, know that Winkie is nevertheless an extraordinary teddy bear—he has willed himself into becoming a sentient being, and as such, he escaped from the house where he was the beloved toy of Clifford Chase (years ago, when he was a boy), and Clifford's mom before him. Winkie set out to find a place of his own, so to speak, and on the way stumbled into an adventure that eventually led to his apprehension by the FBI.
I like and admire this play, but it feels uneven, teetering between zany surreal fantasy on the one hand and more heavy-handed parody on the other; between the childlike innocence of a teddy bear and the raw coarseness that has replaced gentility and subtlety in most of our discourse nowadays. As usual Joe Tantalo and his collaborators at Godlight Theatre Company have done a spectacular job realizing a complex script in the tiny 59E59 Theatre C space, with a minimalist set (by Maruti Evans, also responsible for the excellent lighting design) and evocative sound (Elizabeth Rhodes; music by Andrew Recinos). Perhaps the most invaluable aspect of the design is the teddy bear that "plays" Winkie, which has a soulful, anonymous quality that will remind you, probably, of a toy from your own childhood. Winkie is voiced and manipulated by Nick Paglino, who also plays Clifford Chase; his performance is splendid and utterly central to the piece. Eight other actors play all of the many other characters in the play, with particular standouts being Erin Wheelock in a variety of roles, comic and tender, and Geraldine Johns as a nurse who befriends Winkie and is his only real friend during his struggle for freedom.
Pelfrey's story, from Chase's, is absurdist and wildly improbable; the fact of Winkie's being alive is sort of hard to wrap your brain around. Easier to understand is the insanity surrounding poor Winkie, from the extravagantly corrupt judge and prosecutor at his trial to the single-minded FBI chief who wants Winkie brought down to the opportunistic MSNBC documentary host who is our guide into this crazy tale. The fact that we've already encountered pop culture parodies of the archetypes who populate Winkie doesn't make it less distressing that they have so much spooky authenticity; if we're too jaded to be jolted by the heightened reality presented here, we may have to look inside ourselves for the reason.
We also need to listen hard to what Winkie and his former owner/alter ego Clifford Chase are trying to tell us.