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Theater review'If we’re not trying to do something new, then why do art?'

In Boston, COVID sends Russian-Jewish theater group hurtling through space and time

In ‘Witness,’ playing through January 23, the Arlekin Players take their performance online, combining tech elements to transport viewers back to the ill-fated MS St. Louis in 1939

  • Behind the scenes of 'Witness,' a new online production by the Arlekin Players. (Courtesy)
    Behind the scenes of 'Witness,' a new online production by the Arlekin Players. (Courtesy)
  • A scene from 'Witness,' a new online production by the Arlekin Players. (Courtesy)
    A scene from 'Witness,' a new online production by the Arlekin Players. (Courtesy)
  • A scene from 'Witness,' a new online production by the Arlekin Players. (Courtesy)
    A scene from 'Witness,' a new online production by the Arlekin Players. (Courtesy)
  • A scene from 'Witness,' a new online production by the Arlekin Players. (Courtesy)
    A scene from 'Witness,' a new online production by the Arlekin Players. (Courtesy)
  • Behind the scenes of 'Witness,' a new online production by the Arlekin Players. (Courtesy)
    Behind the scenes of 'Witness,' a new online production by the Arlekin Players. (Courtesy)
  • A scene from 'Witness,' a new online production by the Arlekin Players. (Courtesy)
    A scene from 'Witness,' a new online production by the Arlekin Players. (Courtesy)
  • Even the 3D rendering of the MS St. Louis is accurate in 'Witness,' a new online production by the Arlekin Players. (Courtesy)
    Even the 3D rendering of the MS St. Louis is accurate in 'Witness,' a new online production by the Arlekin Players. (Courtesy)
  • A scene from 'Witness,' a new online production by the Arlekin Players. (Courtesy)
    A scene from 'Witness,' a new online production by the Arlekin Players. (Courtesy)
  • The cast of 'Witness,' a new online production by the Arlekin Players. (Courtesy)
    The cast of 'Witness,' a new online production by the Arlekin Players. (Courtesy)
  • A scene from 'Witness,' a new online production by the Arlekin Players. (Courtesy)
    A scene from 'Witness,' a new online production by the Arlekin Players. (Courtesy)

BOSTON — When in-person gatherings were banned early on in the pandemic, most theaters canceled shows and waited for things to sort themselves out. But the Boston-based Russian-Jewish theater company Arlekin Players took on the challenge and moved their performances online, combining elements of cinematography, theater, 3D design, videogaming and Zoom calls to create interactive shows like no other.

The company’s latest production, titled “Witness,” takes place in real-time on a 3D model of the MS St. Louis, the ill-fated ship on which 907 Jewish refugees tried to flee Nazi Germany in 1939 — only to be rejected by Cuba, the United States, and Canada. The ship was forced to return to Europe, and over 250 of its passengers died in the Holocaust.

The play, running through January 23, is documentary theater sewn together from dozens of interviews, documents from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, diaries of passengers and historic newspaper articles. Even the 3D model of the ship is a replica of the actual MS St. Louis.

The production expects and requires audience participation. Viewers are instructed to use a laptop that allows them to move freely around the room, to listen through their headphones rather than speakers, to turn on their own cameras so that others can meet them virtually, and even to vote for their favorite performers. At one point, everyone is told to turn off the lights in their room. The screen goes black, and only sound remains — the noise of the ship’s boards creaking in the sea, a knock on the door, the approaching footsteps. It is terrifying.

“I think the word ‘experimental’ needs to be in all theater,” says Arlekin Players founder Igor Golyak. “If we’re not trying to do something new, then why do art?”

Yet while the play opens with a real story about the St. Louis — whose fateful journey began as a happy cruise ship voyage with concerts every night, and one passenger later recalling that “the most amazing thing was that the crew treated us as human beings, which we weren’t used to anymore” — it quickly changes direction as Golyak puts modern-day Russian Jewish immigrants to the US on board the ship from 1939. It is as if they too are now looking for a safe harbor, someplace without antisemitism.

Arlekin Players founder Igor Golyak. (YouTube screenshot)

“It is not a story about the Holocaust,” Golyak says about his play. “It is a story of not having anyplace to go, and not feeling safe, and being in the middle of the ocean and feeling displaced.”

As they sail on the World War II-era ship, Russian-Jewish immigrants from 2022 get into discussions about antisemitism in America today.

In particular, the play openly criticizes how the theater community in Boston reacted after a Russian-speaking rabbi was stabbed outside of a synagogue last summer. One of the actresses says that after the attack, she kept waiting for a statement condemning antisemitism from the Boston theater community, but this statement never came.

“To me, their silence is very loud,” she says in the play.

The cast of ‘Witness,’ a new online production by the Arlekin Players. (Courtesy)

Golyak says he interviewed more than 70 Jewish immigrants around the world while working on “Witness,” most of them Russian-speaking immigrants.

“It’s not my opinion,” he says. “It is a point of view that one of the interviewees gave me. The Boston theater scene is a very progressive, very open-minded community. When there was the Black Lives Matter movement, all the theaters sent emails, posted online, organized special programs. To a lesser extent, they responded the same way about Asian hate. But when the issue concerned the Jews, it wasn’t as important. There wasn’t any support email or any website post about Jewish hate. There are 25 theaters in Boston. None of them said anything about antisemitism.”

A scene from ‘Witness,’ a new online production by the Arlekin Players. (Courtesy)

According to Golyak, Jewish immigrants in the US are now having familiar discussions around their kitchen tables about where to flee next because of rising antisemitism and “the lack of safety and belonging.”

“Jewish immigrants feel unsafe in America,” Golyak says. “They feel like in America, they can’t talk about this anymore… People can’t say their position on Israel if it’s the wrong position. It is wearing [something] that identifies the person as Jewish and [then fearing that] they won’t get work, they won’t get cast in something.”

Whether the Russian-Jewish community in the US as a whole is feeling unsafe and having discussions about packing their bags is up for debate.

A scene from ‘Witness,’ a new online production by the Arlekin Players. (Courtesy)

A prominent member of the Russian-speaking Jewish community in Boston, Inessa Rifkin — who founded the Russian School of Mathematics, which has campuses across the US and abroad — said that while she loved the play, she was surprised by the amount of fear in it.

“Why such a huge emotion of fear?” she asked Golyak during a virtual discussion that she led after the show. “I just don’t understand why a 47-year-old man in America feels so uneasy on so many levels.”

Fear certainly does resonate with the audience in “Witness,” possibly because the Holocaust isn’t safely in the past. In a strange time-travel twist, one of the Russian-immigrant actors who is living in America today finds himself unable to get off the St. Louis. He helplessly proclaims that he is a US citizen, that he has to pick up his son, and that he doesn’t belong in 1939. But to no avail. He must now face the terrifying fate of the Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany.

German Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis, June 29, 1939 (public domain)

Golyak says that he has often had a similar dream about struggling to escape from the Nazis. His grandmother’s entire family, he says, was murdered in the shooting massacre at Babyn Yar, in Kyiv, Ukraine.

But when asked whether he has personally experienced antisemitism while living in Boston, Golyak is vague.

“I do feel it and I have felt it recently, but I don’t want to go into detail because of privacy,” he says.

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