Sounds of Silence

"When I was about 8, I saw the moon as it really is," writes expert mime Bill Bowers. As a youth, he would regularly twirl across grassy Montana fields while staring up at the night sky, never realizing that the glowing moon he looked fondly upon had a concealed dark side. His one-man mime show, Under a Montana Moon, playing at the newly renovated Performance Factory, is inspired by the day he took a closer look. In reverence to the visible half of the moon Bowers admired as a child, he maintains a light, happy note throughout the play's first act. His opening skits are silly, with delightful elements of slapstick humor. There are the usual mime gags: walking into walls and getting trapped in a box, though Bowers puts his own spin on the movements by performing them in a cow suit, which is best utilized in his impression of a "milkshake."

Once these crowd-pleasing skits are out of the way, he moves into uncharted waters, recreating a showdown on the Western frontier and a day spent at the county fair, where he plays games and rides coasters. The fair scenes are funny as a narrative but fascinating when you consider there is nothing on this stage other than a man and his suitcase of props. Bowers's movements are so convincing that when he wanders through what we presume is a dark carnival maze and bangs smack into walls, the audience yelps "Ouch!," feeling his pain.

Though this show is centered on mime, there is sound. In the beginning of Act II, Bowers lip-syncs to voice-overs when re-enacting teachings from a Mexican peace movement that came to North America by way of sacred clowns called Contraries. Bowers acts as a Contrarie in his piece The Way of Sweet Medicine when he passes these messages along to us through voice-overs, props, and his own graceful, controlled movements.

In the first teaching he uses menacing hand puppets to portray a man with two wolves fighting inside of him. One wolf is kind and loving; the other is angry and violent. "Which wolf will win?" a child asks in voice-over. "The one I feed," a man's voice responds.

The Way of Sweet Medicine indicates a shift in tone from where Act 1 left us, laughing at a silly cow and Bowers's carnival antics. The moon is darkening, and so is Bowers. In a deeply powerful scene, Prayer for a Boy, he re-enacts the circumstances of Matthew Shepard's heartbreaking death, told through voice-over testimony by the boy who found him.

This piece does not examine the violence or the psychology of those involved, but rather the sounds that came out of the tragedy. "They say we cannot call a sound back," says a monotonous child's voice on the soundtrack. "A sound goes on and on." To illustrate this point, the voice asks us to imagine the sound we think Shepard made when he was beaten and, more distressingly, the sound his mother made when she heard what had happened.

In Act II's final scene, Palette, we see Bowers stepping through a painting into a field alive with cricket noises reminiscent of his beloved Montana field. When he smiles at the moon and proceeds to twirl in dizzying circles, we sense he has come back to the light. The story is nicely framed by his return to the fields, where he now recognizes and embraces both sides of the moon.

One would expect a mime show to rely solely on visuals, given the nature of the craft. But Under a Montana Moon has deeper, richer elements in its stories, which contain important coming-of-age lessons and relevant social commentaries. It is also touching to acknowledge that, although Bowers has studied under the famous mime Marcel Marceau, taught at several colleges, and graced both the silver screen and Broadway stage, he has chosen to focus his one-man show not on these impressive accomplishments but on the Montana moon he grew up admiring. This production is a combination of his heart, mind, and body, and though he never speaks a word, you hear his message loud and clear.

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