When Bill Bowers was brought home from the hospital as a baby, his mother found a poem pinned to his blanket entitled “What is a Boy?” Beyond Words is the acclaimed American mime’s attempt to answer the laden question posed in his birth poem. Through “a collection of mime, music, and monologue” set against the backdrop of remote Midwestern towns, Bowers charts the course from boyhood to manhood.
Born in a small Montana town himself, Bowers’s love for the lonely, expansive lands that fostered his particular art is evident. The carefully assembled set by Roman Tatarowicz is reminiscent of an old Western saloon with wood plank floors and high windows. Into this open space steps Bowers, armed with a mobility of movement reminiscent of his teacher and internationally renowned mime, Marcel Marceau, and backed by constant and well-timed lighting and sound. This is a highly constructed, meticulously staged production and director Scott Illingworth keeps a tight rein on it.
For a skilled mime, Bowers is wonderful to listen to. Some of his best pieces here are spoken with an honesty and wry humor that renders them truly poignant. In “Uncle Davey,” Bowers tells the unexpectedly moving story of a particularly crotchety uncle who as a child had a doll from which he could not be separated despite being teased mercilessly by everyone in the town. One day, the family comes home to find Davey has strung the doll up on a tree and is “beating it to death.” In a lighter piece called “Choteau Montana 2002,” which made me promptly want to move there, Bowers shatters the image of the insular small town by illustrating the colorful residents who welcome “the first homosexual mime [they’ve had] in Choteau” with infectious exuberance and spend their leisure hours in African drumming circles and senior citizen clown brigades. The flexibility and emotional range Bowers harnesses to voice characters and signal changes in tone is the same energy he channels in the best of his mime. In the sequence “New Shoes,” Bowers mimes the tale of a manly older factory worker who falls in love with a delicate pair of red ballet slippers, contorting his mobile face and every part of his fluid body to perfectly convey the humor and pathos of the situation.
Less successful are Bowers’s attempts to borrow gravitas from other works and events such as the novel Winesburg Ohio by Sherwood Anderson and the murder of Matthew Shepard. Bowers’s personal relationship with the art of silence is more than enough to infect us with the same love. If anything, Beyond Words needs more mime and more Bowers to truly show us “what is a boy,” and yet the whole of this theatrical journey is more than the sum of its parts. This play shows you how a small town upbringing can be both stifling and enhancing, especially as it relates to masculinity; how it left Bowers without words but gave him the impetus to find a way to express himself beyond them.