Chicago theatre puts Flemish productions on show


The Chicago Shakespeare Theater has brought three Flemish productions to the windy city, intrigued by its ‘daring’ and ‘virtuosity of acting talent’

Big in Belgium

A monologue performed in a handful languages, a play in which audiences vote characters off stage and a youth theatre piece that revisits a horrific school siege. For stage artist, creating work in a small country with no significant national repertoire can offer a lot of freedom to explore and experiment.

“We don’t have the big traditions – we don’t have Shakespeare or Molière,” says Antwerp actor Valentijn Dhaenens. “That means that theatre in Belgium is always in a way experimental and looking for new ways to say something.”

Dhaenens (pictured), a prolific stage, TV and film actor, is currently giving US audiences a taste of Flanders’ stage scene as part of a Belgium-themed festival put on by the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. The festival is part of the theatre’s World Stage series, which has brought more than 1,000 artists from 23 countries to local Chicago audiences.

As much as it is a jazz city, the US’s third-biggest city is also a theatre city with many performances venues spread out across town. With its World Stage series, curators at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre want to bring work to the stage that isn’t being shown anywhere else in the city and invites directors, writers and actors who have other visions of what constitutes great theatre.

Flanders’ daring material

Edinburgh Festival Fringe, a place where many a curator goes to put together the season’s programme, has been spotlighting Flemish productions for a number of years now. “That focus is really important because people like me have the opportunity to get to see these works,” says Chicago Shakespeare Theatre executive director Criss Henderson.

Henderson first saw Us/Them, one of three Flemish shows that will be performed in Chicago, in Edinburgh a number of years ago. “In the Belgian work I’ve seen, the boundaries are being pushed theatrically in really engaging and exciting ways, and there is a sense of daring to the material that is coming out of many of these companies,” he says. “And that sort of daring is matched with a virtuosity of acting talent.”

All three pieces in the Big in Belgium festival are envelope-pushing, in terms of either their form or subject, he says. Festival opener BigMouth sees Antwerp actor Dhaenens recite speeches by figures like the classical Greek philosopher Socrates, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s first prime minister Patrice Lumumba and conservative American commentator and firebrand Ann Coulter, among many others.

I think for a lot of young people it’s intriguing to see that theatre can be something like this

- Flemish actor Valentijn Dhaenens

Dhaenens switches between Dutch, English and German, modulating his voice to capture the accents and idiosyncratic oratorical styles of the different speakers. Oh, and he also sings – and well so.

That mix of styles and the show’s fast pace – each speech is no more than a couple of minutes – is what Dhaenens thinks might appeal to audiences, particularly young audiences. “I think for a lot of young people it’s intriguing to see that theatre can be something like this,” he says.

Another part of the audience is drawn to the show because they are interested in literature or oration, he says.

The festival will continue in October and November with Fight Night from the Ghent-based Ontroerend Goed (pictured). The interactive production examines how democracy works as five contenders – much like in a reality TV programme – vie for the votes of the theatregoers, who are all given electronic voting boxes.

Bits and pieces

Closing out the festival is Us/Them by premier youth theatre Bronks that explores how young people deal with tragedy and trauma by revisiting the 2004 Beslan school siege in Russia that claimed the lives of over 300 children.

US audiences, Dhaenens says, come to see him with an attitude that is different from that of Flemish theatregoers. “The big difference between American and mostly Flemish and Dutch audiences is that people here want to have a good time,” he says. “They are sitting on the edge of their seats. While in Belgium people will be a bit more laid back, like: ‘Let’s see what this show is about’.”

Members of the audience in Chicago, he notes, frequently come up to him after the show to share their thoughts with him and ask him questions. And he’s also noticed that US audiences need a bit of time to settle into a show.

“Most theatregoers here go to more classic plays, so they have to adapt a little to a non-narrative show,” he says. “In the beginning, they always look for a narrative, and there’s no clear anecdotal narrative in this show; it’s more like bits and pieces glued together.”

Photo top: Valentijn Dhaenens performed BigMouth in Chicago at the weekend

Above: Courtesy Mirvish Productions/YouTube