BWW Review: Mark Dendy's WHISTLEBLOWER Explores Identity, Patriotism
The morning after the premiere of Mark Dendy's Whistleblower at Dixon Place comes disturbing news that the military is forcing transwoman and former intelligence office Chelsea Manning to follow male grooming standards while imprisoned. Dendy's timing is lucky. His piece explores Manning's mind as she faces charges for leaking almost one million documents containing evidence of war crimes committed by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though Manning's case already feels like history in some ways, Dendy reminds us that its personal and political meanings are still urgent.
Just as our knowledge of Chelsea comes to us in largely unconnected fragments - a article here, a news bit there, a Facebook post, a tweet, a hashtag - Dendy's piece is similarly fragmented. Brecht, Kafka, Lady Gaga, and Meryl Streep (as Karen Silkwood, another whistleblower) each make appearances. Chelsea, portrayed by an androgynous and innocently charming Liv Bruce, does not have a strong presence in her own mind. Instead, Stephen Donovan is our "host" Chet Guyster, stumbling over pronouns and struggling with political correctness. Guyster's intentions seem good, but he cannot command the language needed to describe Manning's liminal existence. The heavy-handed metatheatricality of the work - each performer is introduced by their real name each time they step into a new role - also creates tension within the between, the liminal.
Moments of spectacle yield questionable payoff. Manning thrashes to Jimi Hendrix's screeching "Star Spangled Banner." Her violent thrashing eerily recalls the way the media, the criminal justice system, and the world treat her body. Hastily, Manning is stripped to complete nudity, and though the presence of her male genitals is not shocking, it is eye-catching, and a harsh reminder of how these insignificant organs influence our perception of Chelsea even as her voice, her words, and the rest of her body scream that she is a woman.
With Guyster as our host, intimate moments with Chelsea are few. In solitary confinement, she dances with the bars of her cell, exploring her newly limited space as she explores her own mind. Heather Christian, who composed Whistleblower's original music, narrates Manning's self-doubt. Is gender not just a construct, but a male construct? What, then, is intrinsically feminine? If she were presented with a different version of womanhood, (perhaps by growing up in Afghanistan), would she still want to be a woman?
It is not like Dendy to provide answers to the questions he poses. Instead, we must piece together scattered images and words. Videos of "war porn" (a Baghdad airstrike on a group of unarmed reporters) paired with scenes of real porn. Apple pie and Americana, reminders of our false patriotism, and Hillary Clinton as a giggling, gas-mask wearing diplomat (one of Dendy's very brief appearances in the piece). But Whistleblower's thesis, summarized by the mantra "don't ask, don't tell" and its hauntingly multiple relevances to Chelsea, remains clear. Though it is disorderly and unpolished, Dendy convincingly argues that Manning's identities as transwoman and political agitator inform one another.
Photo by Peter Yesley