There are stories that remain forever at the heart of the human experience and WITNESS, the latest virtual theater piece by Arlekin Players Theatre and Zero Gravity Virtual Theater Lab, is one of them. This world premiere and startlingly innovative work is based on an historical saga which began in 1939 when more than 900 Jewish people left Hamburg aboard the MS St. Louis fleeing persecution at the hands of the Third Reich and searching for a haven in Cuba on their way to America. Salvation was not easily found; the ship was turned away from Cuba, and Canada, and the U.S., and was left to roam the ocean in search of safe harbor. The ship finally returned to Europe where several countries took in many of the passengers, but 255 eventually died in the Holocaust.
The piece, directed and co-written by Arlekin’s Artistic Director Igor Golyak along with playwright Nana Grinstein and dramaturg Blair Cadden, was created using archival interviews and images from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and an amalgam of digital derring-do by an international team of artists and technical experts. The result is a dazzling visual and aural virtual landscape in multiple languages designed to be performed live. There’s a rumbling storm on a darkening horizon; animation, voice over, and live tableaux starring members of the excellent and versatile Arlekin troupe, as well as interactive opportunities and on the spot pop-ups for the audience to find out more about the real people who were aboard the actual ship. The piece calls for alert, nimble participation and raises even more questions than it asks, even as it asks us to bear witness to the unthinkable.
Golyak’s work lives at the nexus of the ridiculous and the sublime, and the piece reflects this remarkable tonal texture. Thus the bitter irony of various “entertainments” onboard the ship– singers, magicians, dancers, and an emcee (Gene Ravvin) of a talent contest where we all vote for a winner. One act inevitably involves a house of cards… and suddenly we find ourselves laughing and crying at the absurd, desperate, and precarious plight of “Jews on the move,” their luck running out. With nowhere to land, this fragile flight of souls suggests some kind of awful, unbelievable reality show for a callous god.
Eventually the boat becomes directionless, as passengers group and regroup, question their plight, their faith, while time and space become elastic and a map becomes pointless in a world with no compass. Where to go? East? West? Does it matter? We find ourselves on the boat among the passengers, floating in a fog of everywhere and nowhere, the kernel of this circumstance exploding beyond its immediate factual, political, and personal borders, and into the realm of the universal.
We are certainly in mind of not only the perpetual diaspora of Jews seeking refuge around the world, over millennia, far and near –a Rabbi stabbed in front of a Jewish school in Brighton, MA, or Jews clinging to their borders in Israel. But we are also acutely aware of every migration now in progress around the world which is running out of space and time.
Golyak has centered the Jewish experience of the never-ending quest for safe harbor, and placed it at the heart of the archetypal quest for HOME. WITNESS calls on us to do just that: to bear witness, to look outward and inward, not only at the rise of antisemitism around us, but at what that says about who we are and where we are headed. There’s a desperate race on now, at this existential tipping point, which may leave us nowhere. To be Jewish is perhaps to be the perpetual canary in the coal mine–where all of our lives are at stake. See WITNESS online January 14-23!