Sunday, February 14, 2016

BigMouth at The Cultch

Just back from a matinee performance of Valentijn Dhaenens and SKaGeN Theatre's BigMouth at The Cultch's York Theatre, for which I was also privileged to lead the post-show talkback. A virtuosic tour through the history of oration, Dhaenens's piece is a mash-up of some of the most famous--and infamous--of public speeches to have been recorded for posterity: from Pericles' funeral oration during the Peloponnesian War to Ann Coulter's post-9/11 screed against Muslims. Moving between five sets of microphones anchored to a long, waist-high trestle table, and bridging the different spoken movements with songs looped through a delay unit, Dhaenens has created a complex vocal score that attests to the power of the human voice to move us physically and affectively.

Dhaenens revealed that in preparation for the piece he set himself the task of reading at least one speech a day, eventually making his way through more than a thousand over the course of the year. Working intuitively rather than instrumentally, he began forming different piles based less on immediate temporal connections than on thematic juxtapositions. Thus, for example, following an opening prologue in which Dhaenens channels the voice of the Grand Inquisitor speaking to those about to be burned at the stake, we get two speeches from men condemned unjustly to die: Niccolo Sacco and Socrates. In the first case, as Dhaenens noted post-show, Sacco did not have access to the rhetorical skills (nor even fluency in the language in which he was being tried) that might have saved his life; in the second case, Socrates most assuredly did, but he harnessed rhetoric in this case to indict the system that accused him rather than plead for mercy from it. Likewise, Dhaenens creates a fascinating duet by counterpointing two late WW II speeches by Hermann Goebbels and George S. Patton, deliberately toning down the verbal vituperation of the former and ramping up the cowboy jingoism of the latter in order to focus on the contrast in their sentence structures: long and seductively paratactical for Goebbels; short, sharp and full of declarative machismo for Patton.

Originally created from and for Dhaenens's own Belgian context, another striking pairing concerns King Boudewijn of Belgium--who we hear explaining why he will not sign a 1990 abortion law--and Patrice Lumumba--who presided over Congolese independence from Belgium in the 1960s, and whose subsequent murder was almost surely known of, if not abetted by, Belgian authorities. It's these kinds of intricate orchestrations that elevate this very smart show beyond mere gimmicky spectacle and into a fascinating symphony in which persuasion and exculpation emerge as two sides of the same coin.


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