Witness Review – Harnessing Technology and Art

Where it all began - the MS. St. Louis - Photo courtesy of Arlekin Players
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An award-winning, artist-driven theater company dedicated to imaginative storytelling and new forms of theater, the Arlekin Players present WITNESS, a fascinating true story prepared for a pandemic audience, typically an audience confined to socially-distanced computerized productions. Virtual theater, to quote innovative WITNESS director Igor Golyak, first became an important means of communicating with audiences in March 2020, when theaters across the U.S. shut their doors: “We had to do something…we needed to figure out how to use the virtual world…we needed to develop something for this medium…virtual theater is site specific…a venue to experiment with to see what can be done virtually.” From filming actors before a green screen in order to create the environment required for a piece to involving viewers directly in the story, the Arlekin Players played with these new concepts until WITNESS was born.

Ms. Liberty and the Emcee – Photo courtesy of Arlekin Players

Inspired by the journey of the ship MS St. Louis, which left Hamburg in 1939 with over 900 Jewish people on board fleeing from the Nazis and heading to Cuba, WITNESS is a docudrama based on careful research of historical materials/archives from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and interviews with Jewish immigrants around the world. In a live interactive performance, audiences are drawn into the story on a very human level. Conceived and directed by Igor Golyak and written by Nan Grinstein, WITNESS features scenography and costume by Anna Fedorova, sound design by Viktor Semenov, virtual design by Daniel Cormino, and hair and makeup by Anna Furman. Johan Folke served as the technical director.

The 1939 Talent Show – Photo courtesy of Arlekin Players

The poignant production asks an important question: where do unwanted people go? For this is 1939, and over 900 Jews must relocate quickly – or face possible death. Under the command of Captain Gustav Schroeder, the St. Louis offered cruise ship amenities for its passengers with kindness and care which the group had not seen for several years. In fact, they staged a talent show and enjoyed frequent concerts, along with tasty dishes served with dignity. This was almost a vacation for the 937 passengers. But then fun became very serious when Cuba denied everyone entry except for 22 Jews with U.S. visas, four Spanish citizens, and two Cuban nationals. But Captain Schroeder persisted. The next stop was the U.S., where President Franklin Delano Roosevelt also refused the passengers entry. Canada too would refuse to accept the fleeing Jews. Finally, the ship returned to Europe, with Captain Schroeder insisting that his passengers must be placed in safe European harbors, including England, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. In all, 709 passengers survived the war, while 254 were murdered in the Holocaust.

Discussing Jewish problems today – Photo courtesy of Arlekin Players

WITNESS is staged in three acts, with the first setting the 1939 stage on the virtual ship, the second an audio-only performance by a voice-over cast of actors, and the third a contemporary look at what Jews today face in their lives. Throughout the show, capsule bits of information are available for viewing on-screen as the story proceeds. Sometimes, members of the viewing audience are addressed and given the opportunity to join in. Clearly, this experimental approach enhances the audience involvement and helps to dissolve the wall between cast and viewers.

Setting up a virtual world – Photo courtesy of Arlekin Players

WITNESS is an intriguing foray into the possibilities offered by the virtual world. As Golyak opines: “We are creating WITNESS at a time when Jewish refugees around the world are having conversations around kitchen tables about the lack of safety, of belonging, of finding a home in the face of rising antisemitism.” Developed in Arlekin’s Zero Gravity Lab, WITNESS has a fresh and creative look at a story worthy of attention and consideration. Arlekin’s actors are clearly an experienced group who know how to tell a story, and the production crew has managed to use tools at their disposal in a new and exciting way. Each performance includes a post-show talkback with members of the cast and creative team.

Performances are scheduled for Fridays at 7:30 p.m. ET on 1/14/22 and 1/21/22, Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. ET on 1/15/22 and 1/23; and Sundays at 7:30 p.m. ET on 1/16/22, at 3 p.m. ET on 1/16/22, at 1 p.m. ET on 1/23/22, and at 5 p.m. ET on 1/23/22. For information and tickets, go online.

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