Seventeen famous names appear on a digital blackboard hung behind a long table. You may try to find the unifying principle among them while you wait for the start of BigMouth, running briefly at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. But I’m here to tell you it won’t be easy. The people on the list don’t come from a single time, place, gender, religion, or social stratum. One of them isn’t even real, strictly speaking. And they certainly don’t share a point of view. The fictional one, Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, wouldn’t seem to have anything in common with Pericles, Socrates, Ronald Reagan, Malcolm X, or Patrice Lumumba—though he may arguably share certain characteristics in common with Joseph Goebbels and Ann Coulter.
Yet here they are, each of them getting a moment in the course of this 85-minute solo tour de force by Valentijn Dhaenens, a member of Antwerp’s SKaGeN ensemble.
Dhaenens, whose performance launches a series called Big in Belgium—Chicago, has assembled utterances by Coulter and the rest, speaking them into one or another of nine microphones arranged along the long table. We get, for instance, Pericles delivering his storied funeral oration, Osama bin Laden explaining his hatred for the United States, and—in a section called “American Psychocoaster”—Muhammad Ali declaring, “I’m so mean I make medicine sick.” Dubya Bush speaks to the nation after Hurricane Katrina. Belgian King Boudewijn abdicates rather than enact an abortion law. Some of the speeches—like those of Socrates and Nicola Sacco addressing the courts that will condemn them, or Goebbels and George Patton celebrating war—echo each other. Some create counterpoint. Dhaenen doesn’t do much to embody the speakers or coach us toward a conclusion. What he does is incite a conversation across time, between good and evil, victory and failure, rise and decline, forcing us to listen. v