It is 6:59pm, and I am standing in front of a CVS, waiting for Death.
I’m not sure what I’m expecting from Irina Varina's Fringe show, An Encounter, but that’s the thing, I guess, about death: you never really do. Death may be quick or slow, peaceful or painful. Death could be welcome or unwelcome. You may meet death surrounded by your loved ones, or all alone. Death might come with dignity or could be a final embarrassment.
In this case, it turns out, Death is a blonde woman in a polka-dotted dress. She is holding a bouquet of flowers. And she is looking right at me.
Shuffling off this mortal coil
The day before I am to experience An Encounter, I received an email from “Death’s Assistant,” telling me where on Broad Street I am to meet Death. We will have four lanes of traffic, plus parked cars and a median, between us, more than enough for safe social distancing; Death may be excited to meet me, as the email from her assistant states, but it seems she’s in no hurry to see me actually die.
I am also instructed in that pre-show email to come to An Encounter with death on my mind and to write a question or intention related to death on a slip of paper when I arrive to the Broad Street meeting location, so I can carry it with me as Death and I make our journey together. The instructions said I could think about death in literal and/or abstract terms. I’m thinking not of a specific loss, but rather the overwhelming sense of mourning I have felt—many of us have felt—these last six months. Mourning the summer we never really got and the plays we didn’t get to see and the vacations we had to cancel. Mourning the very real deaths precipitated by COVID-19, the deaths of loved ones whose funerals we could not attend because of the pandemic, and the violence experienced by Black people at the hands of the police.
Ready to meet Death
When Death arrives, I see her right away, although I didn’t notice where she came from. She steps forward and I do the same, then she opens her arms, one at a time and I know I should also open my arms, and then we are off on our walk. Sometimes traveling excruciatingly slow, sometimes skipping or running down the street (don’t make the mistake I did and wear sandals), sometimes disappearing behind a bus only to reappear 10 feet further down the block, Death walks a straight path and I follow.
There are moments in An Encounter, when I experienced it, that felt too perfectly timed to be coincidental but too “only in Philly” to be planned. At one point a man waiting to cross Broad in the middle of the block notices Death first propped against the wall of an unoccupied carwash, and then looks concerned as she slowly lowers her head into a trash can; he darts across the street to make sure the pretty blonde is okay and she smiles and waves him away. At another point, Death slumps on the stairs that lead to Congregation Rodeph Shalom, her body wracked by sobs, while a bride in a poufy dress and a groom in a salmon-colored tuxedo pose for photos a few feet away. Were these moments planned or were we just lucky to experience them? I don’t know. I don’t care.
Eventually, Death leaves and I know it is not my place to follow. I watch her get smaller and smaller as she walks down a side street and I am crying and I don’t quite know why but that’s how death goes, sometimes. It doesn’t always make sense.
Image description: A black-and-white photo of a woman's head and shoulders, seen from behind. She's wearing a leather jacket.
What, When, Where
An Encounter. By Irina Varina. Through September 23, 2020, part of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. More info here.
This performance may not be appropriate for patrons with mobility issues; if you do go, wear shoes and clothes you can comfortably run and jump in.