Valentijn Dhaenens mouths off at The York

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Still in French, we cut across to 1960, and founding premiere Patrice Lumumba's ecstatic victory speech on the occasion of Congolese independence. In the grandstand was the young king of the former colonial master, Belgium, who tacitly conspired in Lumumba's assassination just months later. Some 40 years on, the same king, now old, finds himself morally obliged to deliver a moving speech (in Flemish) abdicating his throne because he cannot in good conscience sign a parliamentary bill authorizing abortion.

Another a capella musical interlude, this time from West Side Story, introduces a quick-cut montage of sound bytes from such American icons as FDR, MLK, JFK, RFK and even WJC (as in Bill Clinton, whose one-line bit part in Dhaenens' whirlwind history is "I did not have sex with that woman.")

But the last word in this segment is given over to firebrand Nation of Islam preacher Louis Farrakhan, who leaps up atop the dais to indict the U.S.A. with a line-item list of broken promises. Then comes Osama bin Laden, squatting cross-legged before the mike for an icy exposition of Allah's undying animus towards the American government and its kaffir electorate.

The compliment is reciprocated. After a nihilistic song interlude courtesy of Kurt Cobain, we are treated to Islamophobic screeds from right-wing polemicist Ann Coulter and one Frank Vanhecke, ex-chairman of the Belgium's jingoistic Flemish secession movement Vlaams Belang. What's eerie about these speeches is the mismatch between tone and message. They're all about vicious ethnic cleansing, but if you sort of elide over the hateful words themselves, Coulter comes off as merely vampy, while Vanhecke sounds like a fuddled old uncle with a funny, elfin accent.

After these two, even George W. Bush sounds downright statesmanly, despite his characteristically impressionistic grammar. Dhaenens dices together snippets from his post 9/11 and his post-Katrina rallying cries. The hackneyed sentiments in either case seem interchangeable, at least until the Great Decider mistakenly supposes himself to be off-mike and veers into a series of corny, homophobic ad libs. And then the sound system goes on the fritz and the whole show sputters to a close with Dhaeners singing a final chorus from Nat King Cole: "the most important thing you'll ever learn/ is to love and be loved in return."

Dhaenens is a marvelously limber performer, with a face as expressive and motile as his protean voice. That's all the equipment he needs -- no costume, set or makeup -- to parade a panoply of iconic figures before us in wickedly spot-on portrayals. Yet he never demonizes even his darkest subjects. They each retain their vulnerable humanity as mere mortals hazarding the hubristic dare of oratory. In his post-show talk, Dhaenens swears he's not political. He's merely fascinated by the sheer power of "what we can do with just this tiny hole in our heads."

The night I saw Bigmouth, whole rows of The York were filled with a few dozen teens from Killarney Secondary, students in a class called "Theatre Crit." (Wish they'd offered such an elective back in my own long-gone high school days). When I talked with them afterward in the foyer, several kids admitted they had no idea who were most of the characters portrayed. But they were fascinated by the stagecraft and alert to the rhetorical parallels between the speeches.

And for all their oral output, uttering history into being with their words, Dhaenens' speechifiers go in for plenty of input, too. They swill copious quantities of water from the lectern tumblers -- a humanizing touch -- as though to rinse the aftertaste of tragic centuries out of their great, big prattling mouths.






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