Review: Witness Binds a WW2 Tragedy With Present-Day Anti-Semitism Through Inventive Virtual Theater

The tragedy of the MS St. Louis, the 1939 ship bound for the U.S. with 937 European Jews on board, is the subject of a powerful new play by Arlekin Players of Boston. Sourced from documentary material, the live performance is being produced virtually through January 23. This is not a virtual play with actors in Zoom boxes. Artistic director Igor Golyak is highly innovative in his use of technology and online, interactive presentation.

Written by Nana Grinstein with Blair Cadden and Igor Golyak, and conceived and directed by Golyak, the live production is set in 1939 but time switches to scenes with present-day Jews discussing politics and anti-Semitism.

An aside to give you a brief history of the St. Louis. The German ship departed from Hamburg with 937 Jewish passengers, including 400 children, to escape Nazi Germany. Passengers thought they were on their way to Havana, where they would wait until they could get visas to enter the U.S. Most of them had Cuban visas. But upon arrival, the Cuban government issued only a few landing permits; the governments of the U.S. and Canada also refused to admit the St. Louis passengers. The ship headed back to Europe, where some passengers were able to go to Belgium, the Netherlands or England, but many ended up in Nazi concentration camps, where 254 died.

Darya Denisova and Gene Ravvin. Screenshot from Arlekin production.

The play begins as the St. Louis departs from Hamburg on May 13, 1939. The emcee (Gene Ravvin) welcomes us to the performance and is with us throughout the 90-minute production. We learn later that he’s a Russian-born American Jew in contemporary America. We move to the ship’s dining room for “Jews on the Move,” a passenger talent show. The emcee announces each contestant by drawing their number from a bingo cage held by Lady Liberty (Darya Denisova). The five-digit numbers are all higher than 27,000, signifying, the emcee says, that each of these passengers will not be admitted to the U.S. for a long time. The number 27,000 was the U.S. quota system for immigrants from Germany and Austria.

Act two is an audio-only scene (with excellent sound design by Viktor Semenov) where we hear voices and memories from survivors’ documentary material. The Arlekin creative team did extensive research, drawing from journals, letters, articles and interviews from St. Louis passengers and with contemporary Jews in Russian and English. (Arlekin is a company made up primarily of immigrant Russian Jews.)

The emcee informs us that the symbolic ship carries not only the Jews from 1939 but also “all the Jews that left anywhere are also here. First wave, second wave, third wave. A whole ocean of waves. From USSR, from Germany, from Spain, from Hungary. Yesterday, today, tomorrow and always.”

Lauren Elias, Anne Gottlieb, Gene Ravvin and Nathan Malin. Screenshot from Arlekin production.

In act three, the emcee is lost in a long corridor leading to passenger cabins and meets several contemporary American Jews. Leah, Rachel and Joseph (Lauren Elias, Anne Gottlieb and Nathan Malin) discuss the current state of politics and anti-Semitism, accusations that American Jews have dual loyalties to Israel, and attacks on Jews and their synagogues. (As I was writing this review on Saturday, there was news of the hostage situation at the temple in Colleyville, Texas.)

Director Golyak and Arlekin’s  Zero Gravity (zero-G) Virtual Theater Lab use audience interaction throughout the play. Audience members are seen on screen from time to time and vote on talent show performers. The scenic design by Anna Pedorova provides views of the ship at sea as well as various interior views. Virtual design is by Daniel Cormino. Golyak and his team use technology, including a gaming platform, to make us feel we are watching a real play performed in a real theater. And, because Witness is performed live, in fact we are.

There are no Covid protocols.

Witness continues through January 23 with two performances today and five shows next Thursday-Sunday. Purchase tickets for $25. Each performance is followed by a talkback with Golyak and ensemble members.

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.

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