Surely you’ve occasionally said to yourself, “I live in New York. I’m a sophisticated theatergoer. Why have I never seen a mime simulating anal sex, cannibalism, and 9/11 onstage?” If your cultural biography has reached this crisis point, neighbor, worry no more: Billy the Mime, the silent actor whose lewd rendition of the infamous joke “The Aristocrats” stole the 2005 film of the same name, has extended his inappropriate behavior to an impressive live show, America LoveSexDeath. Dressed in conventional white pancake makeup but armed with the sensibility of a deranged Durang, the skillful Billy works the line between pathos and schadenfreude so deftly you may leave the theater laughing at your own misfortune.
Billy is the nom de mime of comedian Steven Banks, who appeared in a self-titled mid-’90s PBS sitcom and has since written many episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants. Apparently, Banks has spent so much time on children’s programming that as soon as he gets away from Nickelodeon, he becomes a fount of gloriously bad taste. For this show’s silent vignettes, he culls the most uncomfortable subject matter from the headlines: gruesome stuff like the cases of Terry Schiavo, JonBenet Ramsey, and Jeffrey Dahmer, and controversial topics like abortion, rape, and prostitution. He smashes these in the face of an art form whose image has long suffered from acute quaintness. Though Banks primarily limits his palette to tabloid topics, his approach resembles what artist Kara Walker has done with (and to) the silhouette.
Since his Pierrot has as much Artaud as Marceau in it, it’s interesting to imagine what adjustments he might make in order to broaden his scope—not that he will, or should, seeing as he has a wonderful shtick going. Nevertheless, mime— I should say “silent theater”—whose roots lie deep in Greek tragedy, is a more in
triguing phenomenon than the commedia clowning spoon-fed to Americans via
France that Banks spoofs. It desperately needs a transformation if anyone’s ever going to receive it without cringing—not just at its frequently twee content or its pull-the-rope, I’m-in-a-box clichés, but at the form itself. (No one’s embarrassed to go to a Richard Serra exhibit just because it’s sculpture.) Occasionally during the show, Banks achieves something rare and strange that goes beyond harvesting guffaws from the tension between form and content. The audience didn’t seem to find “A Day Called 9/11” funny, probably because it’s still too soon to laugh, even six years on, but no one took offense at Banks’s choice to depict it, nor his typically unflinching treatment, which includes the terrorist POV. In moments like this, Banks seems ready to drag mime back into truly theatrical territory.
This clown does want his audience to cringe, of course, but it’s clear that he takes the form seriously—he sure isn’t riding on Shields and Yarnell’s coattails. Between mime biographies of JFK Jr. (the famous salute) and Karen Carpenter (dry-heaving has never looked so dry), Banks occasionally mimes a far-reaching social phenomenon like “World War II” or “The ’60s.” The audience has to do some guesswork to understand Banks’s impressions in these pieces, so it’s fascinating to see how much history he can distill into a gesture—who knew Paul McCartney’s head shake was as iconic as a Nazi salute? Clearly he has no shame, reveling in a Hitler impression and the bombings of Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima. He rockets beyond decency, though, in order to humanize his scenarios, not just for kicks: The most appalling thing about “A Night With Jeffrey Dahmer” is neither the human heads Banks counts in the refrigerator, nor the pantomime severing and devouring of human flesh, but the beer he pops open in between.