Going through his mother's dresser after her death several years ago, Bill Bowers found a poem titled "What is a Boy?" that had been pinned to his blue baby blanket when she brought him home from the hospital in 1959. It was the first of a montage of mixed messages society would deliver over his next five decades about how Bowers, who is gay, should become a man.
It also became the catalyst for Bowers' second one-man show, "Beyond Words," which exposes the darker side of gender stereotyping while embracing glimmers of cultural change. "Beyond Words" is both less autobiographical and less cohesive than Bowers' first effort, "It Goes Without Saying" (presented here two years ago), but it is a powerful juxtaposition of human cruelty and compassion that serves beautifully to showcase his unique gifts for mime, movement and monologue.
The titles of a series of vignettes, some enacted silently, others with dialogue, are projected in simple white lettering on a back scrim — "Salad Bar Boy," "County Fair," "New Shoes." These are interspersed with subject-related music and snippets of Arthur Godfrey reading the original poem, as well as bursts of pop culture messages from advertising and television commercials.
Some — like "Uncle Davey," about his mother's cruel and homophobic younger brother; or "Choteau, Montana," about his experience performing in a tiny town not far from his birthplace — are clearly drawn from his own life. Others are pulled from the nation's headlines ("Laramie, 1998," about the torture of gay student Matthew Shepard in 1998), the pages of a novel (a fictionalized portrait from "Winesburg, Ohio"), or his own imagination ("New Shoes," about a Chaplinesque gay factory worker who finds his after-work salvation in a pair of pink ballet slippers.)
The messages delivered are just as wide-spread, veering from devastating cases of man's inhumanity to man to suprising compassion from unlikely sources.
While Bower's presentation is always believeable, he is at his best in silence, his body and facial expressions indeed "beyond words." With a simple spin he morphs from a wide-eyed innocent at the country fair to a cigar-smoking, guffawing barker for a freak show, or from a gun-slinging cowboy to a mincing restaurant employee. His fluttering and flustered hands reveal the angst of an accused pedophile with a devastating accuracy.
Each vignette is recapped briefly in mime at the shows's conclusion, reminding us of the deeply disturbing moments as well as the rays of hope. A developmentally disabled character (a member of another group habitually stereotyped and discriminated against) delivers a final message that, if predictable, stops short of saccharine.
But perhaps more lingering are the words of the redneck Montanan who compliments Bowers for his effect on the younger population: "It's good for them to know there are other ways of communicatin' than hittin' and yellin'."
BEYOND WORDS, Bill Bowers, part of the Ringling Museum's "New Stages: Narrative in Motion" series. Reviewed Feb. 7 at the Historic Asolo Theater, 5401 Bay Shore Rd., Sarasota. Additional performances 7:30 p.m. Feb, 8 and 9. $15-$25. 360-7399; www.ringling.org