The mood is somehow cheerful and foreboding aboard the MS St. Louis ship carrying hundreds of passengers fleeing Nazi Germany. The Jewish people aboard this virtual ship are hoping for a new life and willing to tell what they’ve endured so far in Arlekin Players Theatre’s sobering “Witness” (through Jan. 23), conceived and directed by Igor Golyak.
A rich, digital world was created for this online experience that centers on tales of Jewish migration, persecution and identity, stemming from the Holocaust and culled from interviews conducted by Arlekin staff as well as historical documents mainly from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It’s documentary theater, sort of, but its use of technology helps transport viewers on an interactive, nonlinear voyage through space and time.
The experimental “Witness” — anchored by the question “Where do unwanted people go?” — was developed through Arlekin’s Zero Gravity (zero-G) Virtual Theater Lab and written by Nana Grinstein, with additional writing and dramaturgy by Blair Cadden and artistic director Golyak.
There’s a talent show onboard the boat, and the host asks each person in the “Jews on the Move” event to share their stories and other talents. After each performer is done, the audience (who can be seen via Zoom) has a chance to vote. The winner, the host says, gets a fabulous prize.
During this segment, the story “Skating on Glass” — in which Gisela Klepl makes sandwiches for her father before he was taken away one night and Liesl Joseph’s mom, a coloratura soprano who stopped singing after 1938’s Kristallnacht — is searing. And Marik, a magician who tells listeners about a blind boy named Janek, who wouldn’t take food from him because he was Jewish, tugs at the heart. The atrocities of the Holocaust are no secret, but the shared mundane details of the moments leading up to life-altering pain make it even more chilling. The whole first act — well, make that most of the play — is disconcerting. But, the innovative Golyak, himself an émigré from Ukraine, has a way of thrusting theatergoers into uncomfortable places and leaving them there to mull over what’s on offer.
The MS St. Louis was a real ship that departed on Saturday, May 13, 1939, with 937 passengers and attempted to dock in Cuba and later the U.S. and Canada. Unable to fully disembark, those left on the vessel were forced to return to Europe. Many of those passengers died in the Holocaust. “Witness” is inspired by that journey.
The play is split into three acts. The talent show portion is followed by an audio-only experience in which one person talks about the possibility of dying from a glass of cyanide-laced lemonade by the hands of their mom and finally a return to the St. Louis where characters discuss antisemitism in the U.S.
Other poignant moments don’t have much dialogue at all. There’s a point where the audience moves through the cabins on the ship. There’s a soiled lady of liberty on the floor, a room full of empty shoes that reminds me of the sneaker memorial erected after the Boston Marathon bombing and photo frames in the hallway featuring the faces of certain showgoers, placing us in the ship as witnesses.
In the ship’s hallway, actors outline violent acts from the stabbing of a rabbi in Brighton to what one character calls out as the silence of the Boston theater community not standing with them. Verbal allyship was pledged to the Black community and Asian community, she says, but she was waiting for the same allegiance to the Jewish community.
Antisemitism is on the rise. In an American Jewish Committee report released in October, 90% of Jews surveyed believe it’s a problem and 82% feel it’s getting worse.
After the premiere of the play, Golyak said in a post-show talkback that some of the inspiration came from conversations with others, including company members, about belonging and some of the challenges they faced.
“Witness” brings those concerns to the forefront through narrative and on-screen historical facts that viewers can expand and read in real time. What’s remarkable about this play is that after viewing it, I found myself digging deeper into the past, uncovering critical moments on a tumultuous timeline riddled with heinous acts that marked a people for generations. But I also walked away feeling that despite the circumstances, the survivors for the most part, with their indomitable wills, intended to persist and thrive wherever they ended up calling home.
“If there is a place to live,” the host says, “the Jews will find a way.”
Arlekin Players' “Witness” is available online through Jan. 23.