WITNESS: A new virtual documentary theater piece
Presented by Arlekin Players’ (Zero-G) Virtual Theater Lab
Conceived and directed by Igor Golyak
Written by Nana Grinstein with Blair Cadden & Igor Golyak
Scenography & Costume Design by Anna Fedorova
Virtual Design by Daniel Cormino
Sound Design by Viktor Semenov
Produced by Sara Stackhouse
Dramaturgy by Blair Cadden
Featuring the Arlekin Acting Company
Review by Kitty Drexel
“It doesn’t feel virtual; it feels real.”
– Talkback moderator Inessa Rifkin, a founder of the Russian Jewish Community Foundation and a founder of the Russian School of Mathematics, after the December 13 performance of Witness.
ONLINE/Zoom — It’s almost Yule! Here’s a Christmas story: In May 1939, the MS St. Louis carried 937 passengers from Nazi-occupied Germany to Havana, Cuba. The Cuban government refused the ship. Its passengers remained onboard; the ship didn’t dock. Cuba had cancelled the immigration papers of the onboard immigrants without notifying them.
The United States refused the ship too. The US had space to put the passengers but our politicians let money and immigration law stop them from welcoming the passengers. We made a 1976 secular movie about it called “Voyage of the Damned” with Faye Dunaway. How American of us.
The Jewish passengers were finally allowed some succor when the ship returned to Europe that June. 254 of the passengers died in the Holocaust: 84 in Belgium; 84 in Holland, and 86 in France. There was no room at the inn or the stable with Mary and Joseph.
Witness by Arlenkin Players is about the fluffy talent show that the passengers held to boost morale. Local New Englanders who are also immigrants play passengers on the boat. It’s about the stark tragedy that our country, a nation that says it welcomes immigrants at its front door on the East Coast, decided that Jewish immigrants fleeing for their very lives should go elsewhere. Popup text boxes invite us to learn about who the passengers were and if they survived the ship. It’s about the multigenerational fight against anti-Semitism in the US. The Arlekin Acting Company portrays Jewish characters from across the decades.
Bigotry wasn’t stamped out when Hitler died. It is alive and still oppressing Jewish people in Boston to this day. Witness is about that too.
Arlekin Players sends an email to Witness attendees on the day of the performance. It includes a special viewing link and detailed login instructions for an immersive, participatory show. Attendees should access the online platform 10 minutes early. Some people will extra time to acclimate to the newness of the platform.
We were asked to keep our cameras turned on while we remained muted. Emcee Gene Ravvin called out to different attendees to show us that he was live. A live chat functioned as a community dialogue.
Arlekin Players recommends using a laptop for ease of movement in our own space, and headphones for listening. I second and third their recommendations for a laptop and headphones. They are useful during moments of audience participation.
Witness is two shows in one. In the first, Arlekin shows us the happy, sunny part of welcoming three waves of Jewish immigrants into the United States: culture, food, families, a close-up of a very good dog. The second show is about pain and suffering.
Act 2 is audio-only, like a radio drama. It is truly impressive what sound designer Viktor Semenov accomplishes over Arlekin’s (Zero-G) platform. He incorporates binaural beats to create an impressive immersive sound design. We hear different strings of dialogue in each ear. Voices sound like ghosts on the right and an actor sounds as if he’s directly behind you in the other. It’s cool.
The tone of the piece changes abruptly during a moment about historical passengers on the St. Louis. Stage Manager Leah (Lauren Elias) enters with confidential information for the Emcee. The talent show is forgotten. The audience must now contend with differing eras fighting for dominance in the show: 1940s international waters and 2021 Boston.
It’s at this point that the show becomes truly political. Audiences can ooh and ah over historical events while agreeing that what happened to the St. Louis was wrong. But Witness forces its audience to examine our current state of anti-Semitism.
Leah (Elias) and Joseph (Nathan Malin) swap stories about the anti-Semitic hazards of working in Boston-area theatre. These stories are realistic. They’ve been asked to work over sacred religious holidays, to tone down their behaviors, to explain their existence.
It’s a wakeup call. We must be better to our Jewish colleagues… And to our Black, BIPOC, disabled, queer, nonbinary, and trans colleagues. We must be better now, not later when it’s convenient.
Attendees should join the talkback at the end of each performance. I found our talkback extremely informative. There was community building in the chat. Our moderators were generous with their time and responses.
Happy Yule, everyone! I hope you have a merry Christmas and a jubilant Kwanzaa, too. Try to learn from history so we don’t keep repeating it.
Witness runs approximately 90 minutes.