Whistleblower: Dance review by Eva Yaa Asantewaa
Today’s brisk news cycles deliver a new Person of Interest every few days, it seems, and our attention lurches in that direction. The surging Donald trumps Caitlyn Jenner who, herself, obscured any number of Black lives that did not matter nearly enough. So, if pressed now, how many folks can quickly call up details about a disillusioned army private named Bradley Manning?
For Mark Dendy—writer, director and choreographer of Whistleblower—our distractions and distance from the Manning controversy prove beneficial. His project succeeds as a rough, fanciful patchwork—a little song and dance, a little Brecht and Kafka, and a lot of alarming video straight out of cyberspace and the American Id.
Before we know it, we’re on a rabbit-hole journey that starts in Manning’s Oklahoma hometown, Crescent—"where decent people live"—and ends with Manning’s conviction for leaking State Department secrets that exposed war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then, following sentencing, Manning came out to the world as transgender, renaming herself Chelsea Manning.
Bertolt Brecht could not anticipate how the Internet would scramble attention spans, but he did caution—as Dendy reminds us—that any didactic theater piece must entertain. Dendy follows this advice closely, blending in humor and pop culture—as in one slick music video sequence gorgeously headed up by his Bradley/Chelsea, the appealing Liv Bruce. Bruce, who recently came out as genderqueer, embodies the gentleness and physical plasticity needed to convey a pliancy of mind resistant to any and all orthodoxy.
While Whistleblower explicitly upholds Manning as a righteous warrior on two fronts—against government duplicity and for transgender rights—it works hard to humanize her and win our sympathy. In scenes with the talented, sly Chris Bell (portraying a fellow soldier, a drill sergeant or the treacherous Adrian Lamo), we’re drawn to Manning’s loneliness, her discomfort with the hyper-masculine military, her ruinous need to find someone to confide in, and her determination to tell the truth, as any decent soul from Crescent would surely do.
Dendy has cast himself as a warmongering crank roaring down at the audience from a darkened balcony, and he’s hilarious as a gas-masked Hillary Clinton whose constant, overwrought gesticulation fails to sync with her facile rhetoric and evasions. Costuming splits Rebecca Lubart right down the middle as, alternately, defense attorney and judge, but she’s at her best as Judge Denise Lynd, her hands darting in tense, extravagant gestures and flourishes that draw way too much attention to herself. Stephen Donovan and Mei Yamanaka complete the live cast, songwriter Heather Christian takes on some voiceover roles, and a host of special guests portray video bloggers with the expected crazy array of opinions on all things Manning.
"I’m trying to keep us free," Manning says. And so is Dendy in this imaginative portrait in courage. —Eva Yaa Asantewaa
Dixon Place. Choreographed by Mark Dendy. Running time: 1hr 20mins. No intermission.