Reviews Off-BroadwayPerformance Published 14 January 2014


Public Theater ⋄ 10th-18th January 2014

Not speaking softly

Molly Grogan

It was Aristotle who wrote the first lesson in rhetoric when he identified ethos, logos and pathos as the three means of persuasion. Belgian actor Valentijn Dhaenens and the company SKaGeN write another course on the subject in BigMouth, a bullet train across centuries of oratory that is a highlight of the Under the Radar festival.

The show is meant to look like a lesson, as well. Performances take place in a red upholstered lecture hall in the Public Theater, over which hangs an electronic chalkboard that is covered with the authors and dates of famous – and infamous  -speeches, beginning with Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor in a fictional 1583 and ending with the conservative political commentator Ann Coulter in 2001. Scanning the selection provides some initial edification as to the project’s focus: America is overwhelmingly represented, responsible for over half of the speeches and George W. Bush is sampled three times. But as with any challenging course of study, it’s best to keep in step with the professor. In BigMouth, some surprises are in store.

The first of these doesn’t involve content so much as form: a dull, dry lecture this is not. As our instructor/M.C./impersonator of some 20 personalities, Dhaenens gives a riveting performance, convincingly imitating voices and accents in four different languages and singing the show’s eclectic musical interludes, from Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy.” We can very nearly hear Lumumba, in person, celebrate the end of colonial rule in Congo in 1960, Patton address the troops of the Third Army prior to the Normandy landing, Osama Bin Laden issue his declaration of jihad against Americans in 1996 as well as Reagan and George W. Bush offer similar platitudes to the nation after the space shuttle Challenger disaster, the 9/11 attacks and the passage of Hurricane Katrina.

The other surprise involves Dhaenens’ choice of content and some strange juxtapositions (one string goes like this: The Grand Inquisitor, Nicola Sacco, Socrates, Goebbels and Patton), These combinations soon reveal their logic, however, as Dhaenens teases out their thematic and rhetorical similarities. Other groupings, like the excerpts from Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Mohammed Ali and John F. Kennedy, do not offer the riches we might expect: against the percussive rhythms of “America” from West Side Story, Dhaenens puts the accent not on the US civil rights movement but on the circus of American politics, with a punchline borrowed from Bill Clinton delivered by JFK (followed by Marilyn Monroe’s “Happy Birthday, Mr. President”). In these excerpts, the great orators of the 1960s appear much smaller than we remembered.

Dhaenens being Flemish, the show includes two revealing speeches from Belgian politicians. On the one hand, there is King Baudouin’s address to the nation protesting the passage of abortion rights legislation in 1990; on the other are the Islamophobic remarks made by Frank Van Hecke, the president of the now disbanded Flemish far-right party Vlaams Belang, to members of Pat Buchanan’s American Cause in 2007. If Belgium has a reputation with Americans for being a backward bog, these speeches won’t relieve them of that impression. However, New Yorkers came off as the ones with the blinkers on the night I attended, laughing generously at the mention of “Brussels, the capital of Europe”; Dhaenens had to pause twice to remind the audience of the truthfulness of that statement (Brussels is the official seat of the European Commission, making it the de facto capital of the European Union, as all Europeans know). Unfortunately, his efforts only provoked more waves of merriment…

Perhaps more speeches are what we need after all (or at least a proper history lesson). BigMouth certainly gives fodder to the argument that divided Plato and Socrates from Aristotle: is rhetoric an art or mere flattery? Does it uphold truth or gratify an audience to better serve the speaker’s agenda? (And does anyone listen anyways, or rather do they hold fast and tight to their own ignorance?) BigMouth doesn’t provide the answers, because that would require more speechifying, but it does offer some strong hints.

In Dutch, French, German, and English with English supertitles.

Read the Exeunt review of BigMouth at the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe.


Molly Grogan

Molly is a New York Co-Editor for Exeunt.

BigMouth Show Info

Directed by Valentijn Dhaenens

Cast includes Valentijn Dhaenens


Running Time 90 mins (no intermission)



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