And Justice for Winkie

Pinocchio and The Velveteen Rabbit are enduring children’s fables about toys that experience the unconditional love of a child, desire to and eventually become living entities.  In both stories, the protagonists experience different trials before their wish is granted.  These tales have survived over the ages to become classics that are passed down to each generation like an heirloom toy.  And as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 looms over Manhattan, 59E59 Theaters stages a stuffed Molotov cocktail with a terrorist twist in the world premiere of Clifford Chase’s Winkie – sure to be a classic itself. 

Clifford Chase’s Winkie is a 2006 novel written by author Clifford Chase and chronicles the accounts of an 81-year-old teddy bear named Winkie.  Winkie has been a part of the Chase clan for as long as he could remember.  He first belonged to Ruth (Clifford’s mother) and then to her children until he finally became the toy of young Clifford, but as Clifford grows up, he leaves Winkie behind like everyone else before him.  Winkie sits for years on a shelf filled with the memories, until one day Winkie miraculously wills himself to life.  He throws a book out of the window and runs away determined to experience three simple wishes – freedom, eat and go “doo-doo.”  Winkie also experiences an immaculate conception as he gives birth to an off-spring, a fuzzy small teddy bear named Baby Winkie.  The innocence of Winkie’s new life comes to an abrupt halt when his child is kidnapped by a bomb-making lunatic, and he is beaten, shot, taken into FBI custody and charged with 9,678 charges including terrorism, sodomy, witchcraft, treason and vandalism (basically all the crimes of the man that stole his baby).  He is also accused of being the leader of a worldwide terrorist organization that were responsible for the 9/11 attacks and others.   Winkie is brought to trial and the world thrusts itself into “Winkie-mania” as battle lines are drawn and crackpots, liberals, conservatives and everything in between add their two cents to the saga about a teddy bear accused of the most heinous acts against mankind.

The Godlight Theatre Company scored a winner with Clifford Chase’s Winkie.   Playwright Matt Pelfrey cleverly constructs an irresistible, profound and inspirational adaptation that offers a stellar translation to Clifford Chase’s novel for members of the audience unfamiliar with the book.  Director Joe Tantalo wills this play into fruition, tactfully threading a production that weaves humor, hysteria, imagination and sentimentality and totally relies on the cast to sell it.  The theater is completely devoid of a set, but scruffy, little Winkie and the rest of the cast (which features Nick Paglino, Greg Konow, Adam Kee, Elliot Hill, Sean Phillips, Chris Cipriano, Michael Shimkin, Erin Wheelock and Geraldine Johns) absolutely compensate for the lack of scenery.  From the moment Winkie is place on the stool center stage, I was completely enthralled in the story.

Like a good allegory, Clifford Chase’s Winkie draws its audience in with a strong relatable character.  It is clear the teddy bear has a Christ-like aura.  He comes into this world (which is a miracle) knowing nothing but love, he creates a life in his image (another miracle) and he is persecuted by the very people he wanted love and share love with.  Winkie eloquently states during his trail, “So many times and worst of all when I lost my child, my eyes wanted to click shut forever – yet somehow I still had love to give, and always have.  Why, why, why?  Despite it all.  Why was I created, and why do I love?  What is it about me that survives?  Despite it all, despite it all:  It ‘s my heart: I can’t help it.”  And what makes this production so appealing is its heart.  It is a gutsy, unflinching portrait of what society has become in the wake of the age of terrorism.  At times I was howling with laughter and others I was holding back tears, but throughout the play I listened (as Winkie did) with an open mind.  The idea that a stuffed animal could be a terrorist is completely asinine, perhaps just as unintelligent as profiling certain groups of people or using the justice system and war to create one’s own personal witch-hunt.

The 2011 theatre season is still unfolding, but this production is the best show I have seen thus far.  Clifford Chase’s Winkie may not be the story you recite to your kids at bedtime, but it is the type of show you can take your children to in an effort to explain the absurdities of the world and take something away from it for yourself.  After watching terrorists create battlegrounds and casualties whenever and wherever they choose, the world may never be the same, but it does not mean that we have to succumb to fear, intolerance and meeting naked aggression with more aggression – there is always room for love and humanity.

 Photos:  Sean Dooley

What Happens In Jersey…

What is it about Jersey that gets such a bad rap?  Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, Jerry Lewis, Joe Pesci and Bon Jovi all came from the Garden State.  Before Sin City opened its first casino, Atlantic City was a gambler’s playground for years and with its beach and boardwalk, it played host to the Miss America Pageant for decades.  But despite these facts, New Jersey is constantly the butt of tri-state jokes and poorly depicted in the media, i.e. Jersey Shore.  Then came a fictional story set in an attic in Ridgewood, New Jersey, touted as a gothic fairytale, and my hopes that New Jersey would be seen in the public eye as more than a fist-pumping toxic dump was restored.    Unfortunately, Play Nice! did little to enhance New Jersey’s public image nor did it fully live up to its potential as a gothic fairytale.

Play Nice! focuses on Isabelle, Luce and Matilda.  On the surface, their lives seem ideal, but behind the doors of their home their reality is quite different. Each of the kids are forced endure their fare share of abuse from their mother, who is an obese alcoholic.  Determined to prove to her neighbors that she deserves to live in this affluent bedroom community 20 miles from New York City, the children’s mother demands perfection in and out of the home, which is only partially furnished to enhance her façade.  The bulk of Luce and Isabelle’s time is spent in the attic escaping into their world of make believe where there mother, the Dragon Queen, cannot reach them.  Matilda is relegated to be the maid and her mother’s verbal whipping girl.  The play’s dark plot primarily takes place in the attic – very V.C. Andrews’ gothic, but that is where the similarity stops.  On Thanksgiving Day the mother is poisoned after having her afternoon tea and the children must utilize their active imaginations to simulate the  events leading up to the poisoning.

Play Nice! is a journey in which pretend can uncover truth and stretches the idea of what a fairytale can be.   It also challenges one’s typical perception to the term gothic.  My issue with this dramatization was the venue in which it took place.  I believe the stage, especially an Off-Broadway one, might not do this story justice.  Ridgewood, New Jersey is a very well-to-do village, but with exception to the mother’s references to this idyllic town, the audience does not get to experience it.  The pretend sequences between Luce and Isabelle once he runs away from his mother are well acted, but the lack of background diminishes the somberness of their reality.  Play Nice! will end its limited run at 59E59 Theaters on March 27.  While it is not necessarily my cup of tea with regards to a play, I firmly believe this story would work well if not better as a film and would happily pay $8.50 to see if my theory is right, as well as to see a few scenes of New Jersey shown in a better light.

Photos:  Richard Termine