The stage adventures of Winkie, teddy-bear terror suspect

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Winkie, with Nick Paglino. (Photo by Sean Dooley.)
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Back in 2006, Grove Press published a debut novel by Clifford Chase, the quirky Winkie, about a teddy bear who comes to life and, ultimately, faces trial as a notorious terrorist.

The risky premise and difficult story, its two halves alternating between wide-eyed fairy tale and sharp political satire, had won admiration despite having been pretty tenuously stitched together; in a current theatrical interpretation, Clifford Chase’s Winkie, they come apart at the seam, ripped into two wholly distinct narratives. One falls flat; the other manages to hold on to the magic of Chase's original story.

The novel devotes roughly equal time to the present—in which a naïve teddy bear gets caught up in America’s often absurd war on terror—and the past: reminiscences of the title bear’s decades as a childhood toy and the miraculous story of how he came to life and found freedom.

For his stage adaptation, Matt Pelfrey has shifted the balance decidedly toward the trial, and this is unfortunate. This far along, parables about the ridiculous and illogical witchhunts of the past decade already seem somewhat stale; in fact many of the best were written before the present war. And, under Joe Tatalo’s direction, the whole trial—a darkly Kafkaesque operation in the book—becomes a comical farce bordering on slapstick, losing its sinister power and becoming more silly than harrowing.

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But even if Pelfrey has significantly cut down on Winkie’s backstory, what remains is still thrillingly inventive and deeply moving to watch.

Nick Paglino portrays both Winkie (giving voice and movement to the teddy bear that he holds in his hands) and Clifford, the man who owned Winkie as a child. Paglino gets at both the serious and intimately emotional core of the story through both characters, by different routes. He understands that if the audience is meant to believe that Winkie came to life, then the actors must also believe it. As Winkie, he is open-hearted and guileless, unable to hate even the owners who neglect him, the jailers who torture him, the strangers who destroy his family, and the ignorant jurors who hold his life in their hands. (Geraldine Johns, as Winkie’s sympathetic nurse Francoise, also gets this.) As Clifford, Paglino is depressive and wistful, looking back on his childhood and wondering where it all went wrong.

An hour into the show, when the bear takes the witness stand in his own defense, Winkie finally gets a chance to tell his story to the world, and in Paglino’s hands, the soliloquy is brilliant. The dated politics and clunky humor of the first hour fade away, as the audience sits in hushed awe, believing.

Clifford Chase’s Winkie, presented by the Godlight Theatre Company, is playing at 59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th Street. Tickets are $25. Call 212-279-4200.