The premise of Nina Wise‘s new solo performance piece, What Just Happened, is rather simple, and at the same time very demanding. Wise performs an hour’s worth of monologue, during which she reconstructs events that occurred in the past 24 hours. Not news events, or world events — expect no reference to Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, or the bombing attempt in Times Square — but events that happened to Nina Wise, specifically.
If that sounds solipsistic, indeed it is. But such is the nature of solo performance, which is mostly first-person memoir reconstituted for the stage. By the end of last Friday’s show at the Marsh Theater, we all knew that Wise is a middle-aged woman who lives with her dog, visits a cardiologist, and does yoga. We knew, also, that she’s contemplating an invasive medical procedure to fix her heart murmur — it would require a surgeon to chisel through her breastbone and pump the blood out of her body. We know that she frequently uses her brother as an emergency contact, and that at some point she visited the Beverly Hills mansion of computer-chip titan Max Palevsky, who died last Wednesday. By the end of an hour, we’re well-attuned to the minutiae of Wise’s personal life.
Wise relates these events in a nonlinear, piecemeal way. She incorporates flashbacks. It’s not clear when exactly she visited Palevsky — obviously it couldn’t have happened between Thursday, May 6, and the show on Friday, May 7, but it had to have been recent, since she recalls sitting in his home and watching Rachel Maddow. Nor is it clear whether the visit happened at all, or if it happened exactly the way she described it. Wise appears to have phenomenal event-recall, but she often blurs the line between reality and her elaborate fantasy life. She’s a limner of words, and a lover of figurative language. She describes Palevsky’s house in photographic detail, capturing everything from the perfectly coiffed hedges to the Matisse paintings on the wall and the wrought-iron railings “made by somebody who is very famous, but who you’ve never heard of.” The scene she creates is so intoxicating that veracity doesn’t really matter.
Solo performance might be the perfect medium for Wise. She’s a commanding writer and a gifted — if forgetful — extemporaneous speaker. (At a couple points in Friday’s performance, audience members had to fill in missing words — like the Arabic term halal, which Wise forgot in a momentary brain-freeze.) To be fair, Wise allows other writers such liberties, too. In the opening scene of the show she pretends to read a New York Times obituary for Palevsky, which, she says, is quilted with errors. (She incorporated a rather cunning analogy about quilting that got a few laughs from the audience.) Her stories get a bit disorienting because they move around so much in time and space. Occasionally, there’s no distinction between what just happened and what could-have-been.
That’s another hallmark of solo performance, which is mostly the domain of people like Wise. While it probably wouldn’t be that interesting to follow her around all day, it’s easy to get seduced by the recap. Wise is one of those performers who have no trouble occupying a bare-naked stage, and making it an extension of their interior world. And the stage at the Berkeley Marsh Theatre is about as denuded as one can get. For its twentieth season, the company opted to skip all the gala celebrations and instead open a new stage where Anna’s Jazz Island used to be. Thus, Wise gets to perform amid the frothy ferns and teakwood furniture of the old jazz club. Avoiding props and set pieces, she creates whole environments using only her voice and body. On Friday, Wise wore a zip-up tunic and a loose, long-sleeved shirt underneath. Sweat slickened her forehead and beaded her collar bone for most of the show.
What Just Happened? is very much in the Marsh Theatre vein. Wise’ show happens to coincide with Don Reed‘s East 14th Street — another first-person stage diary that drags audiences through the trenches of quotidian life. But Wise and Reed approach their material from different angles. Reed’s play is scripted and choreographed, and centers entirely on past events. He’s performed it over and over again and honed it to the point of near-perfection. In contrast, Wise traffics in the present tense. She performs a different play each night, amalgamating events of the last 24 hours, and fitting them into a 60- to 75-minute time slot, depending on where the muse takes her. Naturally, her play is spottier than it would be had she written everything ahead of time. (Wise says she might come with an outline or a few jotted notes, but mostly writes in her head.) All the same, it has a kind of immediacy and spontaneity that you don’t always get with solo performance.
Last Friday, Wise managed to bring everything full circle. She started with Max Palevsky’s obituary, then went through a series of free associations, then returned to her original theme. Somehow, everything clicked together, and the last line felt warranted. As the house lights went up, Wise enjoined audience members to come back and bring friends. It’s a different show each night, she said. And it’s not always about death or cardiograms.