The next time someone tries to crush your dreams, tell them you once saw a man lasso the moon. You don't even need to exaggerate: Bill Bowers is doing it nightly in his one-man show at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, It Goes Without Saying, and he's setting the bar very high for the shows that will want to claim the most moving onstage moment this season.
So the rope's invisible, so the moon's a construct of the mind, and so Bowers is a mime and not a David Copperfield-level illusionist. When he tosses that lasso up into the sky and is rewarded with the galaxy's greatest catch, his triumph ripples through you as though you'd done it yourself. And when he realizes soon after that the moon belongs to everyone, just try holding back the tears as he gently kisses it and releases it back to the heavens.
Bowers achieves in his all-too-brief pantomime "Montana Moon" what all mimes - actually, all performers - most strive for: He becomes a conduit into the human soul, transforming exaggeration into irresistibly intimate emotions. For all the mimes who have served as the butts of jokes and not been granted their proper dues as artists, Bowers and "Montana Moon" might just be the redemptive force they've been longing for.
But for struggling artists of other stripes, especially those who see solo vehicles as gateways to personal success, Bowers's impact is considerably less favorable. "Montana Moon" might be as powerful a scene as you'll experience onstage this season, but it's the only moment of expressive magic in a show that - like less-successful performers - is too often guilty of trying too hard.
Beginning with his upbringing in Missoula, Montana, and climaxing with his studies with mime extraordinaire Marcel Marceau, Bowers traces the path of his life and examines the role silence has played in it. There were certain mysterious (and illegal) happenings not discussed in his childhood neighborhood of Skunk's Hollow; silence became death for the AIDS-afflicted New York gay community in the 1980s; and when Bowers's HIV-positive boyfriend Michael experienced a severe health decline while they vacationed in Germany, Bowers - who spoke no German - found himself unable to communicate when he needed to most.
Such stories, particularly those centering on Michael's painful last months, are not unaffecting. However, entertainment is such a necessity for Bowers - and, one suspects, conceiver-director Martha Banta - that the show's lighthearted treatment of many events overwhelms the potential impact of the serious scenes. Without a stronger overarching structure, they seem like little more than momentarily sobering diversions lost amid a series of linked, lightly comic vignettes.
There's ultimately little difference in dramatic impact between Michael's death and Bowers's multi-year national tour as Slim Goodbody, his time spent on a movie set with Hugh Grant and Donald Trump, or his explanation of a frantic trip from a New York Christmas show to a New Jersey production of Cabaret. He waves away issues like upbringing and sexuality with cheap cracks - "I'm a mime because I'm from Montana," he says at one point; at another, he refers to his high school drama club as "Gay Head Start" - that wouldn't be out of place in a more fervently comic story, but blend poorly into these surroundings.
What work best are the moments of pantomime that creep into his storytelling: a hilarious one at the top of the show, when he arrives downstage center through an apparently endless series of doors, a sad but uplifting one when he must tend to the now-mute Michael in his final days. When Bowers's ordinary recollections are ornamented with pantomime, his motions convey at least as much as his words.
And, in the case of "Montana Moon," a great deal more. The story about a Montana wrangler who obtains what gives him joy and then returns it to its home so it may similarly affect others, is the whole show in moving microcosm, presented with a clarity and simplicity the rest of the show noticeably lacks. Bowers says so much in those five minutes that you hardly notice he doesn't utter a word. "Montana Moon" is perfection; the rest of It Goes Without Saying is still waiting for Bowers to find the voice in his spoken words that so richly resonates through his speechlessness.
It Goes Without Saying