By Stan Richardson; Co-Directed by Stan Richardson and Matt Steiner
Produced by The Representatives
Off Off Broadway, Play
Extended through 12.18.16
The Studio @ 345, 345 West 13th Street
by Elizabeth Kipp-Giusti on 12.4.16
Matt Steiner in Private Manning Goes to Washington. Photo by Jan Wandrag.
BOTTOM LINE: With a thought-provoking and truthful script, Private Manning Goes to Washington is a achingly vivid reminder that information is power, and justice begins with us.
Private Chelsea Manning is a hero. Private Chelsea Manning is a criminal. Private Chelsea Manning is a human being. In their newest show Private Manning Goes to Washington, the radically intimate theater collaboration The Representatives explores all three of these truths. With both a bold, well-researched script and empathetic perspective, Private Manning is an affecting meditation on what justice and patriotism actually mean. Based on the real-life series of events surrounding US Army Private Chelsea Manning’s leak of nearly one million sensitive military documents and her subsequent arrest, the show is a thoughtful education in the facts of the case, as well as a catalyzing agent for action. Avoiding preaching, Private Manning Goes to Washington simply demands we know the truth. It is up to us to decide what to do with it.
The show is structured as two imagined parallel conversations: actual historical hacktivist Aaron Swartz (Matt Steiner) and his former bully-turned-collaborator Billy (E. James Ford) discuss a plan to create a play that will create empathy about the case; Private Manning (Steiner) and President Barack Obama (Ford) speak about the maddening politics of freedom and how to treat other humans with compassion. Both exchanges are based on actual events, and as such they occasionally slip into impenetrable language—names, dates, references to US privacy laws—that might lose audience members who come in with no background. However, the show is also powerful in its mastery of these many complicated data points, and utilizes them to impart the vastness of this story. With a simple but effective set design by Paul Hudson made mostly of stacks of manila envelopes, a gradual reveal of the horrors held inside these beige folders is deeply affecting. Playwright Stan Richardson should be applauded for his mastery of the many complicated layers of story (kudos also to dramaturg Jordan Schildcrout), creating a timely and incisive play about virtual reality and the lies we stand on.
Steiner and Ford’s performances do not vary hugely between the two sets of dialogues. As Swartz, Steiner is a compellingly direct communicator, pacing and bubbling with frenetic energy but also cuttingly straightforward. As Manning, Steiner is more centered and more focused, a subtle reminder that Manning currently spends most of her life in brutal federal solitary confinement. Ford’s Billy, a stand-in for the audience as an outsider being brought into this world, is easily flustered though resilient, uncertain but earnest. In his evolution into Obama, Ford’s physicality changes, but he retains a certain surprising low-status affectation. The impact of the power dynamic between the two actors does somewhat flatten the complexity of these characters, though the script does enough work to expose everyone’s flaws ensuring they retain their humanity. And it is this humanity that is important, since the connection between Swartz and Manning is a common faith in people and the belief that power should be democratized.
Beyond the issues of access, justice, and empathy, Private Manning Goes to Washington fundamentally also contemplates the utility of theater to have real impact in the world. What can theater do that other things cannot? What is the value of theater right now? This running theme throughout The Representatives’ shows does not, perhaps cannot, come to any final conclusion. Creating empathy and driving consciousness impacts the world on the individual level, which may feel powerlessly minute against larger political and systemic forces. Yet Private Manning and Swartz—actual, individual, people—shifted the world because they cared. We see their persistence—they both keep asking, keep reacting, keep saying more. Perhaps, asks Private Manning, we can do the same.
(Private Manning Goes to Washington plays at The Studio @ 345, 345 West 13th Street, through December 18, 2016. The running time is one hour and fifteen minutes with no intermission. Performances are Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 8. Each performance is followed by a party. Tickets are $40, $20 for students, and are available at brownpapertickets.com or by calling 917-312-5707. For more information visit therepresentatives.org.)
Private Manning Goes to Washington is by Stan Richardson, Co-Directed by Stan Richardson and Matt Steiner. Lighting and Set Design is by Paul Hudson. Dramaturgy is by Jordan Schildcrout. Community Outreach is by Caitrin Sneed. Production Assistance is by Maren Lavelle. Hospitality Design is by Lindsay Maiorana. Projections are by Thomas Kavanagh. Stage Manager is Zachary Tomlinson. Graphic Design is by Michael Constantine. Photographer is Jan Wandrag. Press Representative is Kevin P. McAnarney/KPM Associates.
The cast is E. James Ford and Matt Steiner.