Calling “Beyond Words” a mime show is to do it a disservice. Mime is pretty much the sardines of the stage — somewhere, someone really loves it, but you never seem to find them.
Yet this delightful memoir, which Bill Bowers tells in a series of vignettes that begin with him speaking then segueing into mime, is nothing short of wonderful. Granted the crowd at Manhattan’s Urban Stages is stacked in his favor on opening night, Wednesday, Oct. 12. But this is such a well-done story and told in such an engaging way that this show would work in far larger venues on any night.
The one-man show is mostly autobiographical. Bowers tells of being born in Montana in 1959, the same year Weird Al Yankovic, Nancy Grace and Barbie also entered this world. Bowers is by far the most charming among them, as Barbie really depended so much on others for her personality.
It wasn’t going to be easy for this affable guy, “growing up gay in a small town in Montana in the ’60s.” Bowers, who has a precise physicality, was trained by Marcel Marceau. The accoutrements associated with mime, though — the striped shirt, white face and exaggerated makeup — are blessedly absent. Rather, Bowers wears plain brown pants and different ordinary shirts throughout the hour-and-20-minute show.
What comes through is a very good writer, someone who recognizes humor and ironies and perseveres despite the odds.
“My grandfather was a gold miner, my father a farmer and I am a mime,” Bowers says.
His stories are formed from life in rural Montana, the county fair, saloons and lumberjacks. The characters and ways of the deep country made him. That and singing along to Karen Carpenter songs.
“My first job was dragging around a little red wagon, collecting deer pelts,” he says.
He later worked in a nearby town as the salad bar tender. This was 1974 when salad bars had just come into vogue and Bowers knew presentation was everything. Yet he wasn’t appreciated for his Jell-O mold of the state of Montana.
Not all of the pieces feel connected, but the clever lighting distinctly separates them.
One segment that isn’t autobiographical is “Winesburg, Ohio.” Based on Sherwood Anderson‘s brilliant novel, it takes place in 1914. Bowers plays Wing Biddlebaum, the pseudonym of a former teacher with hands that flit and caress students, though lovingly not sexually, as the townsfolk believe. He’s beaten up and run of town, and he becomes a day laborer in a haunted, frenzied existence.
Bowers does a beautiful job with this but it’s a jolt from the rest of the narrative.
The longest and most entertaining of his pieces is “Choteau, Montana, 2002.” He tells of being hired as a visiting artist for a week. This very small town has one motel with five rooms, and Bowers is the sole guest. It’s a ranching and farming community and though he’s initially wary being a gay mime in a tiny town in the middle of Montana, Bowers soon learns that Choteau is not what he expected; precisely like this play.
Just as the generous spirits he encountered in Choteau enriched Bowers’ life, ours was by the man who bills himself as a mime but is so very much more.