Italian-American anarchist Nicola Sacco stutters through his statement to the court before his execution in 1927. In ancient Greece, Athenian politician Pericles offers cold comfort to the families of those killed in the Peloponnesian War. U.S. President Ronald Reagan delivers the television address about the “Challenger” disaster, largely aimed at a nation full of school children who had watched the space shuttle explode moments after its launch.
When: Through September 22
Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand
All indelible moments for a speaker and a speech, certainly. But in their audience, their reach, their stylings and their circumstances, it’s hard to see much connective tissue among them. In lumping them together, “BigMouth,” a solo piece that writer-director-performer Valentijn Dhaenens has toured across the globe in recent years, bites off a little more than it can chew.
“BigMouth” marks the first entry in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s “Big in Belgium” series. The small nation nestled between France and Germany that also serves as the HQ of both NATO and the European Union is apparently also a hotbed of contemporary European performance; Chicago Shakespeare has given Belgium three of the seven slots in this season’s international World’s Stage programming as a kind of mini-festival.
Dhaenens’ performance is all about the power of oration and the oration of power. A long table on the otherwise bare stage holds five microphone setups all in a line, which the performer moves among as he delivers excerpts of two dozen or so famous (and infamous) spiels. Above the stage, a projection screen mimics a chalkboard scribbled with the names and dates of the speakers and speeches we’ll hear; higher still is a smaller screen offering supertitles for the texts Dhaenens delivers in languages other than English.
This is no impressionist show. While Dhaenens subtly and skillfully hints at the actual sounds of the soundbites American audiences of 2018 are most likely to recognize — JFK, RFK, Reagan, both Presidents Bush — mimicry isn’t what he’s after (though his control of his vocal instrument, with the occasional help of audio loops and effects, is impressive).
The point here, seemingly, is to highlight the manipulative potential of speechifying in all its forms—which is perhaps a bit too much to ask of a show that covers two and a half millennia in 80 minutes.
There are highly effective subthreads, such as a relatively early segment in which Dhaenens turns two contemporaneous World War II addresses contrapuntal. General George S. Patton’s “speech to the Third Army”— you’ve probably seen George C. Scott deliver the sanitized version — is contrasted with Joseph Goebbels’s “total war” address. Dhaenens alternates the personas of Patton and Goebbels —the American general has the strident, barking machismo that won the movie Patton seven Oscars, while Goebbels is unctuous and insinuating — but the direct contrast demonstrates how both men are really using parallel tactics on their audiences.
Ultimately, though, you start to question Dhaenens’s balance of sources. Again, for an 80-minute piece (that’s also intercut with a few musical interludes — a cappella renditions of songs from “We’ll Meet Again” to “Smells Like Teen Spirit”), “BigMouth” is heavily weighted toward both the post-WWII world and America specifically.
Dhaenens provides just enough dead air for you to start to think about what he’s omitted: Patton and Goebbels but nothing from Churchill or FDR? John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, but no LBJ or Nixon? And for that matter, it’s unclear much of the time why he’s chosen the specific pieces he does include: Why Reagan’s Challenger address rather than the more impactful “evil empire” speech or “tear down this wall?”
For every striking choice, such as invoking Osama bin Laden’s 1996 declaration of jihad, there’s a head-scratcher like a milquetoast address by Belgium’s King Baudouin. The only female voice represented is the right-wing provocateur Ann Coulter, in her notorious post-September 11 jeremiad (“we should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity”). Dhaenens quotes a lot of big mouths, certainly. But shorn of context and with no real framing, it’s frustratingly unclear what Dhaenens is using them to say.
Kris Vireis a local freelance writer.