In “America LoveSexDeath,” the most disturbing thing about Billy the Mime’s work is that it’s beautiful. With just a few movements of his hands, his long fingers bent toward his stomach, he creates an old-fashioned waistcoat. With an upward tilt of his white-painted face, he communicates the respect a young boy feels for an adult. There’s a thrill in watching these things emerge from silence and air, because Billy entices our imaginations to finish his elegant sketches. But what do we do when he’s sketching something cruel? How do we forgive him for making us imagine the worst?
Billy’s assortment of short, wordless scenes asks those questions like a dare. Filled with standard mime tropes — the classical music soundtrack, the “running in place” routine — the segments turn some of America’s most trenchant scandals and tragedies into charming entertainment. Their gentle humor evokes familiar horrors in an unfamiliar way, almost forcing us to experience them anew.
Consider “A Day Called 9/11.” We know that’s the scene’s name, because Billy opens every piece with a title card. Immediately, a gauntlet is tossed: How is a mime going to handle a terrorist attack?
Not with absolute reverence. Billy begins on the phone, chatting idly as he looks out a window that’s presumably in one of the Towers. It’s a funny caricature, complete with boorish posture and bored facial expression. Soon, though, he morphs into a man unrolling a prayer rug. We can assume we’re seeing a terrorist, but is he a goof like the office drone?
Next Billy’s body becomes a plane, and then his arms shoot straight up over his head, skyscraper-style. The office worker glances out his window and looks afraid. Billy’s tower arms collapse. Then he pantomimes sex, thrusting into one invisible body after another: This is the terrorist collecting his reward of virgins in the afterlife.
When he’s miming sex, Billy’s expression is hysterical — triumphant and horny at the same time. At the perf reviewed, however, it produced awkward twitters. People were not sure if they were allowed to laugh or not.
This ambiguous moral stance will anger some and delight others, but it is so surprising and well executed that it demands attention. As he addresses everything from JFK Jr.’s death to Thomas Jefferson’s affair with Sally Hemings, it’s clear that Billy isn’t being provocative for no reason. By turning our shared, painful history into this kind of art, he’s asking us to evaluate what his subjects mean to us. Whether we’re amused or revolted by his approach, our reactions can teach us something.
Shrewdly, at the perf reviewed, “America LoveSexDeath” began and ended with breezy fun. (Scene selection will change throughout the run.) The first piece was a love affair enacted entirely by Billy’s hands, and the last one, “The Clown and the Beautiful Woman,” let him joke around with an audience volunteer. These bursts of pure entertainment kept the show from seeming too preachy, and the contrast they offered only increased the impact of the middle scenes.