First came Carlos the Jackal, the Unabomber, and Osama Bin Laden. Now, America can add another name to the list of public enemies—Winkie the Bear. Yes, fellow citizens: According to spooks and G-men hell-bent on his execution, that floppy stuffed animal we see parked on a stool center stage is a creature no one ought to love. He might look innocent—even squeezable. But classified allegations say this master of disguise actually plots death for lawful civilians because he secretly hates our “way of life.”
In Clifford Chase’s Winkie, Matt Pelfrey’s adaptation of that post-9/11 novel, Homeland Security captures, tortures, and prosecutes this long-suffering teddy. The comedy starts out as courtroom-based political satire, with paranoid CIA operatives and fear-mongering officials stoking public hatred. Via flashbacks to hooded renditions and “enhanced” interrogations, the play alludes—shrilly and often—to the so-called Global War on Terror and its cynical Orwellian vocabulary. Stars-and-stripes cover the upstage wall, reinforcing the obvious.
But if you bear with it, this dark caper eventually eclipses the pseudo-Brechtian overkill. Under Joe Tantalo’s sharp direction, Godlight Theatre Company’s peppy production gets a lot of mileage from its narrative frame—one of those hour-long MSNBC “investigative” reports on the incident. Elliot Hill portrays the special’s breathless British host with a pitch-perfect ear for our fatuous broadcast media, stepping in and out of the shadows to comment with appropriately hilarious pomposity.
The turning point, however, falls later, when Winkie decides to break his stoic silence and tell his story. (Nick Paglino, who doubles as Winkie’s distraught owner, puppeteers and voices the role suggestively.) The teddy’s fantastical monologue steers the play into a much-needed new dimension—ursine allegory, perhaps?—with surprising emotional power. At last, the piece seems to channel all those animal emblems from modern literature—Kafka’s cockroach, Bulgakov’s black cat—as it makes a refreshing dip into the absurd. This rally comes late, but Tantalo’s sporting cast carries it off. Like Winkie himself, the show narrowly averts a dark fate.