San Francisco

Nina Wise & Lauren Elder

80 Langton Street

In the performance Singing My Mother to Sleep, NINA WISE collaborates, as she has done before, with visual artist LAUREN ELDER. Without lapsing into the kinetic story line shifts, which left the viewer dizzied by some of Wise’s previous work, _Singing clarifies and illuminates two earlier themes, survival (Glacier, 1978) and the end of life (Death Meditation of Helen Brown, 1976).

The setting is a hospital room and the time.dream time. Wise rests fitfully on a white. rollaway bed while enormous slides of wild animals are projected onto a three-part privacy screen. Off stage, a music1an plays and chants “glacier bear, polar bear. rabbit. chinchilla. gorilla” At the word “orangutan,” Wise sits up and somnambulantly repeats the word. Soon afterward, she explains to her nurse that she was having a dream about her mother and relates some childhood memories while her physical motions in turn change her into a swimmer, a kangaroo, a river boat. The most elaborate of these flashbacks takes place in front of a blue-lit Mylar screen which creates the illusion of an illuminated pool, while at the same time, off stage, a swimming lesson is gently being sung. Wise’s motions are those of a dancer, fluid with a few moments of flurried underwater panic. It is this combination of disciplined graceful body movements and poetic intonation which elevates a lengthy monologue (which could have been unrelieved tedium) and holds the audience.

The introductory wild animals, threatened with extinction, become a visual metaphor for Wise’s narrative, most of which is devoted to events leading to her mother’s death from cancer. She narrates her mother’s compulsive activities and anger, as well as her own frustrating encounter with a doctor whom she consulted in an effort to make her mother’s last days easier. This incident leads to an inspired takeoff on a medical fanatic who believes that his nighttime hobby of rock-and-roll dancing is the true cure-all.

Singing My Mother to Sleep isn’t all personal catharsis. There is a larger vision which one feels the right to expect from Wise. In a final sequence, slipping in and out of her narrator/actor role, she describes the death of a woman. Lying in the hospital bed with a skeleton she says “I have a compulsion to whisper to the woman do not be afraid, go towards the light. As I lean over, I see that it is me and I see the light and I feel so good. She goes out the window with the skeleton, and twirls in front of projected scenic views. The musician sings ”In the moment of my dying I will remember that there is no time. Singing My Mother to Sleep is an imaginative confrontation with some basic issues, presented with dignity and skill Nina Wise is a consistently thoughtful performer whose recent work has gone from admirable to excellent.

Mary Stofflet