There’s a sequence near the end of Beth Corning’s new dance piece The Waiting Room that struck a deep nerve with me. Performer Jacob Goodman begins to spin a simple pine coffin around a circle, like the hand of a clock, spinning it faster and faster as other dancers rush in, bearing the kinds of mundane objects that consume our days – a bowl of soup, a newspaper, an outfit – and scrambling to keep up with the spinning coffin. In the background, a fire begins to glow on the three projected screens, the dancer’s movements become more and more desperate, the rhythmic string music becomes more and more urgent, the coffin, and time, relentlessly spin on, the projections morph into an all-consuming forest fire, and suddenly the group of dancers stops, gestures, and disbands, leaving Goodman alone with the coffin once again.
Why did that sequence strike a nerve? Maybe it’s because, well, right now I’m sitting at my computer, staring at a screen, trying to convey my experience of the piece, and simultaneously struggling with the question of whether or not doing this is a valuable way to spend the precious minutes allotted to me. Am I simply allowing my time to be eaten up by life’s tasks – the meals prepared, the websites clicked on, the emails dealt with, the blog posts posted – while that coffin-clock hand spins down the hours to my certain death?
Such are the existential questions provoked by The Waiting Room. Goodman plays a Shomer, the man tasked, in the Jewish tradition, with guarding a dead body overnight before its burial. Actually, he’s a last-minute substitute for the regular Shomer, and because he’s been called in unexpectedly, he’s not fully prepared for the job. He’s forgotten his prayer book, so instead of reciting prayers, he begins to conjure – memories, stories, vignettes, dreams, fears, and images. A childhood story of watching a woman in a neighboring apartment undress. A memory of his mother’s cooking. Dreams of swimming.
Structured as it is around the stories the Shomer tells his dead companion to fill the hours of vigil, this dance theater piece is more narrative than most of Corning’s work, but like most of her work it also slides easily between the concreteness of language and the fuzzy indecisiveness of image and metaphor. Vignettes from the Shomer’s childhood morph from the mundane to the sublime, as if being co-present with death has made him – and us – more alert to the dimensions of being alive – pushing back against the truism, projected at one point on the screen, that “we live as if we don’t know about the certainty of death.” Iain Court’s lighting design gives the dance sequences that alternate with the narrative a quality of otherworldliness, making the “waiting room” a liminal space between life and death, where things that are actually present and things that are present only in imagination or memory collide, interact, share space, and activate each other.
Goodman brings a winning ease to the role of the Shomer, both as an actor and dancer, and his familiarity with Jewish tradition allows him to downplay what might seem odd about the tradition to those unfamiliar with it and to call attention, instead, to the way in which being co-present with the dead becomes an opportunity to connect with the divine and reflect on our own mortality. Catherine Meredith is mysterious and languid as the neighbor whose undressing fascinated the Shomer in his childhood, and Beth Corning brings humor tinged with melancholy to her portrayal of the Jewish mother, always with an offer of (too much) food. Corning’s always-illuminating and captivating choice of music is enhanced, in this production, by the addition of the voice and presence of John Carson, who plays the imagined deceased “Phil” (at least, that’s what I took him to be) and sings, toward the end of the performance, a haunting Irish melody. Stephanie Meyer-Staley’s scenic design looks deceptively simple, but eloquent touches – like the stones that weigh down the scroll-like screens, which evoke the Jewish tradition of placing pebbles on gravestones – add unexpected depth and poignancy to the visual field. Projections by Jakob Marsico and Jessica Medenbach add an additional layer of lyricism and out-of-this-worldness to the performance, interlayering text, drawn imagery, and video with the live performance.