I spent my Sunday at The Public Theater, seeing as many Under the Radar shows as I could possibly fit into one day. I got up to three. It was exactly the boost of adrenaline needed after a crummy post-holiday week. It’s exactly what the Under the Radar Festival is all about in the first place– giving the New York theater community a reviving boost by showcasing some of the world’s most provocative, thoughtful, and progressive pieces.
One of the most anticipated shows in the lineup this year is BigMouth, a one-man show by Belgian theater collective SKaGeN in which creator Valentijn Dhaenens performs selections from some of the world’s most memorable, most controversial, and most influential speeches. These range from Socrates’ defense speech to modern-day pundit rants from the likes of Anne Coulter. Dhaenens orders his speeches not in chronological order but in more meaningful ways to enhance thematic connections, stylistic differences, or the evolution/persistence of particular ideas. The best example of this is the simultaneous reciting of Joseph Goebbel’s 1945 to Nazi citizens about wartime moderation, and General Patton’s 1945 speech to his troops. As Dhaenens seamlessly alternates between Goebbels’ composed, cool austerity and Patton’s bombastic volatility, the speeches’ differences and shocking similarities seep through. Many of the speeches were given in wartime and so the propaganda and the consequences of war feature prominently in the show. Xenophobia and ‘other-ness’ are also explored, particularly in recitations from more contemporary leaders.
The set is comprised of several microphones set on a long table and a chalkboard where the speakers and dates of the speech are listed. In a way, the chalkboard is appropriate– the show has a bit of a didactic feel to it, so be prepared to learn. Many of the speeches are well-known, but some I had never heard of, like King Baudouin of Belgium’s renunciation of his political power when his Parliament decriminalized abortion, were just as fascinating. Dhaenens’ performance raises many questions of the role of leaders, how they use rhetoric to embody cultural values, and how speeches can overtly say the same thing but mean opposite things to opposing factions.
Dhaenens is an incredibly engaging and versatile artist and manages to take the audience’s attention by the reins without a fight for the 90-minute duration of the show. In addition to his powerhouse voice and charisma (and never mind that he performs the speeches in their original languages where possible so that Dutch, German, French, and several types of accented English all feature in the show), Dhaenens collaborates with the sound technician to create musical loops and remixes as bridges between speeches.
Catch BigMouth at The Public’s UTR Festival through January 18!