For those in the dark, Chelsea (née Bradley) Manning is an armed-forces member who, stationed in Iraq, passed along state secrets and videos of American war crimes to Julian Assange. These materials were an indictment of the United States and shined a light on our corrupt cover-ups and hypocrisy. To make things more complicated, Bradley decided to give in to his lifelong desire for gender reassignment causing even more media buzz, insisting on being called Chelsea.
Dendy uses his fertile imagination to tell Manning’s story beginning with his repressed childhood, on through enlisting in the Army where he was trained in computer technology. He brings in homophobia, prejudice of the transgendered, legal bureaucracy, the propaganda machinery, etc., with a wit and a cartoony, over-the-top sensibility, all with a core of sadness and anger, particularly at the absurdly long sentence that Chelsea received.
There are sidebars about G.I. Joe—in particular his lack of genitalia; speechifying by Hilary Rodham Clinton (a hilarious Dendy); a brutal affair with a fellow enlisted man; many references to that other doomed whistleblower Karen Silkwood (via images of Meryl Streep in the film); some meaningful nudity; scenes of 9/11 and even some unsubtle use of gay male porn to make a point very pointedly.
Even though Dendy is a choreographer, the dancing in Whistleblower is intermittent and incidental to the overall effect of the project. Costuming, set design (both brilliantly and pointedly executed by Stephen Donovan), videos (also produced by Mr. Donovan) of everything from deserts to battles to porn, and, in particular, words (many of Chelsea Manning’s) plus transcript excerpts from the trial, all trump the choreography. It didn’t matter that this wasn’t a “ballet.” It was a well-intentioned, vivid work of total theater.
Dendy plays a sadistic sergeant and Hillary Clinton both in bizarre costumes. Liv Bruce was a fine, tremulous Bradley/Chelsea with a very useful mass of blonde hair. Rebecca Lubart was brilliantly two-faced—literally—as Defense Attorney David Coombs and Judge Denise Lynd. By merely turning from one profile to the other she convincingly became these characters. Mel Yamanaka was low-keyed and nimble as Truth and a dancing Karen Silkwood. Christopher Bell showed off his acting talents in three diverse roles: the soldier with whom Bradley had the affair, a macho Sergeant and Adrian Lamo, a hacker who guided Bradley. Heather Christian, who also arranged all the incidental music for the show, was the voice of Silkwood and, occasionally, Chelsea. Donovan was the obnoxious Host Chest Guyster whose commentary was always in bad taste. He inhabited his grossness.
Dixon Place, just a hop, skip and jump from Katz’s Deli, is worth frequent visits, but Whistleblower is a particularly good reason to get down to this Lower East Side cultural center.
Whistleblower (through September 26, 2015)
Dixon Place, 161A Chrystie Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-219-0736 or visit http://www.dixonplace.org
Running time: 75 minutes with no intermission