Persuasive Xenophobia Finds Voice in BigMouth at Chicago Shakes

Critics Kimzyn Campbell and Karin McKie jointly review BigMouth, running at Chicago Shakespeare Theater through September 22. Ticket discounts are available when two or more “Big in Belgium” shows are booked together.

The SKaGeN Company inaugurates the “Big in Belgium” festival at CST, a limited-run, three-play series featuring new European productions, which can be seen separately or as a set.

Valentijn Dhaenens created and performs the solo juggernaut BigMouth, an 85-minute assemblage of singular speech snippets spanning the ages, most recent and many political, some in Dutch, German, and French (with English surtitles on stage).

About half the show is spoken in English, as many of the orators are American, tallied by a list, with names and years, on a video chalkboard above the sparse set. Trim in a light suit, Dhaenens flows side to side, up and over a Last Supper-evocative long table with five microphone stations. He seamlessly embodies each character with a change of position, adding physical components that prevent the podium from becoming a stagnant symbol of word salad from a madman.

Dhaenens honed the piece at the 2012 and 2014 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, after dedicating himself to reading over a thousand speeches in a year. He found bellicose connections among Pericles’ and French President Sarkozy’s funeral orations, Goebbels “total war” speech, and King Boudewijn’s abdication address.

Speakers include civil rights leaders Martin Luther King (1968) and Louis Farrakhan (2005), President George W. Bush (three separate years), Osama bin Laden (1996) and Ann Coulter (2001). Dhaenens intersperses a cappella songs, built by replay loops, covering songs from Sinatra to Nirvana.

Karin: Lovely seeing the show with you, Kim. You wanted to describe the show in a few words. What are your words and why?

Kim:  I only had two words; persuasive xenophobia. Although it seems Dhaenens didn’t necessarily set out with the mission to highlight that aspect of humanity, that is what emerged in this research on strong oratory moments. Maybe there is some unspoken rule that 90% of all songs must be love songs, and 90% of all speeches must be about power imbalance, or trying to justify power imbalance?

Karin: We shared quite a few audible clucks of connection during the show. Why were you moved to verbalize during the show?

Kim: What inspired me to make noises were moments of poignancy when he juxtaposed similar speeches, incongruent personalities or songs that cleverly punctuated what the speeches were about. The Goebbels and Patton speeches stood out. We are clearly supposed to see Goebbels as the villain and Patton as the hero, but, as Goebbels addresses and flatters the working- and middle-class housewives making the weapons, his tone was charming and protective as if he were sharing some insider secrets and he really knew who the real heroes were (surprise, it was the factory workers!).

Of course, that speech was cloying and manipulative, but I was able to picture myself as a housewife in the factory, worrying about her husband and sons and feeling comforted by it. Whereas Patton’s speech, by contrast, was jingoistic and his tone was crude. That distinction hit me in the gut, the realization that no side was altruistic or noble, and seeing how easily the tone a person takes, even more than the content of their message, can persuade a crowd.

Karin: We both agreed that the Osama bin Laden speech, where the microphones were made to echo to sound like he was in his infamous cave, was shockingly sympathetic. Why do you think we found some empathy for the terrorist?

Kim: Once again, his tone. He was soft-spoken, using reasonable language, addressing us directly, and laying out his argument. He had some good points about the role the US played in weaponizing and radicalizing his country and using his countrymen for political aims. Of course, it got creepy quickly, like a parent calmly removing a belt and explaining why and how he is going to beat you for your transgressions.

Karin: The most strident speech was by Ann Coulter. Why did she sound worse than bin Laden, and why do you think she was the only woman included in the roster?

Kim: It was very clever to put Coulter’s searingly xenophobic speech near the end. Her rhetoric demonstrated how modern tribalism doesn’t drive only men to violence and hate speech; it’s a human condition. Women are capable of being petty, narrow-minded and cruel too, in case you were just about to chalk it up to testosterone. And the reason there was only one female was probably (subconsciously) representative of the amount of voice women have historically had in politics worldwide.

Karin: The show was timely, with material that touched on 9/11, so close after that anniversary, as well as disaster response as Hurricane Florence was moving toward the Carolinas. Did that make the show particularly resonant, or was the show’s success more due to the actor’s talent in curation and performance?

Kim: Unfortunately, I think the show will always be timely. Our brains will always create relevance in light of the trespasses of the day. But, yeah, Dhaenens was particularly gifted, giving this production a powerful punch.

The other “Big in Belgium” shows are Fight Night, October 23-November 4, and Us/Them, January 22-February 3, 2019. They’re being staged at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand Ave. on Navy Pier.

Karin McKie
Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.