Theater Review: BIGMOUTH (Chicago Shakespeare)

Post image for Theater Review: BIGMOUTH (Chicago Shakespeare)

by Lawrence Bommer on September 13, 2018

in Theater-Chicago


Who says words can’t kill? In BigMouth, flawlessly intoning English, Walloon, French, and German (with captions), Belgian solo performance artist Valentijn Dhaenens pours a dozen passions into nine alternating microphones. In little more than 70 minutes, this creator-performer conflates disparate speeches from sources as diverse as the innocent but executed anarchist Sacco in 1927 to Robert Kennedy’s urgent humanism to the execrable xenophobe Ann Coulter, paranoid and patronizing.

Here the sheer lack of context means resistance is futile. A now-precarious past scarily seems ever imminent. Juxtaposition is everything, so that, when the exhausting evening ends, a numb audience discovers what cunning orators have long learned — the power of eloquence over reason and emotion over both.

A veteran of the Belgian company SKaGeN, the supple-voiced but sober-visaged Dhaenens manages to erect a one-man Tower of Babel, at times a cacophony of cruelty alternating with a suddenly soft ballad, like Nat King Cole’s standard “Nature Boy” (which concludes a formerly frantic piece).

The ravings of Hitler’s war thug Goebbels (“Totaler Krieg!”) finds — an instant later — an eerie echo in the rants of General George Patton. Sitting cross-legged like a swami, Osama bin Laden patiently explains in 1996 the provocations that will lead to 9/11. Belgian’s King Baudouin details why he will abdicate rather than sign a bill normalizing abortion. His self-serving sentiment arrives immediately after Pericles’ magnificent funeral oration, the first lasting definition of democracy.

As an electronic chalkboard ticks off the sources, we’re treated or tormented to instant affect — George Bush’s bombast about the terrorists hating our freedom, a Belgian right-winger peddling panic about some “23 million illegal immigrants” (!) infesting Europe, Ronald Reagan apotheosizing the Challenger disaster, and a brilliant Louis Farrakhan exposing American myths of exceptionalism and entitlement.

Shocking and stirring as he traverses 2,500 years of speechifying pyrotechnics, Dhaenens’ interwoven onslaught of hate speech and tender testimony goes beyond irony to a kind of crack-brained enlightenment. He takes no sides, just presents the tricks of the talker’s trade to work on you as it will (or won’t).

Indeed, Dhaenens has a very big mouth, as Red Riding Hood said to her “grandmother.” And it conveys, more powerfully than we prefer, the relativity of rhetoric. Way too often across the centuries sound has beaten sense and we’re taken in in every way.

BigMouth is the first of Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s three-part Big in Belgium—Chicago series, theatrical events showcasing boundary-breaking fare from the former Flanders. Coming next month is Fight Night, a “reality-theater” contest from the collective Ontroerend Goed, and, in January, Us/Them from BRONKS, a harrowing depictionof the 2004 Beslan School siege between Chechen separatists and Russian overkillers.

photos by Maya Wilsens

SKaGeN | Richard Jordan Productions | Theatre Royal Plymouth
part of Big in Belgium—Chicago
Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare Theater
800 E. Grand Avenue on Navy Pier
ends on September 22, 2018
for tickets, call 312.595.5600 or visit Chicago Shakes

for more Chicago shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

Leave a Comment