With ‘Witness,’ Arlekin again breaks new ground

A scene from a virtual talent show held on the MS St. Louis in “Witness.” Photo courtesy Arlekin Players

Like Captain James T. Kirk, captain of the Starship Enterprise, Igor Golyak sees his mission as “To boldly go where no one has gone before.”

Golyak, the artistic director of the Needham-based Arlekin Players, leads an award-winning troupe rooted in the traditions of classical and contemporary Russian theater that is also invested in imaginative storytelling and new forms of theater.

While most theater companies were struggling to survive during the pandemic, Arlekin came up with two groundbreaking pieces —  “State vs Natasha Banina” and “chekhovOS /an experimental game.”

Now Arlekin and Golyak have upped the ante yet again with the world premiere of “Witness,” the newest virtual theater piece from Arlekin’s Zero Gravity (zero-G) Virtual Theater Lab. “Witness” blends live performance, film, audio, and green-screen technology.

Golyak both conceived and directs the piece, with a script by Nana Grinstein and additional scripting by Golyak and Blair Cadden.

The 90-minute documentary piece unfolds in three acts and is largely based on one of the most shameful of an endless number of shameful episodes of World War II: The more than 900 Jewish passengers fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939 on the MS St. Louis who were denied entry into the United States, Canada and Cuba. They were stranded with nowhere to go and no escape.

A banner shot of the MS St. Louis in “Witness.” Photo courtesy Arlekin Players

They eventually returned to Europe and almost a third eventually died in the Holocaust.

The heart of the piece was derived from mor than 90 interviews conducted by members of the Arlekin Players as well as from the archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, a must-see if you should visit the capitol.

The 90-minute documentary theater piece bears witness to the migratory experience of Jewish people in the face of antisemitism, and asks the piercing but timely question: Where can we safely go now?

It also successfully marries several areas of technology and design by artists around the world in telling the tale.

The creative team also includes scenographer Anna Fedorova and virtual designer Daniel Cormino. In the third act of “Witness,”  green screen technology is used to put actors into the vacant hallways of the MS St. Louis.

At the helm of the piece is actor Gene Ravvin, aided by a host of actors and actresses adding voice-overs and playing various parts, including many members of the Arlekin company.  

In Act I, Ravvin is an emcee overseeing a desultory talent show on the St. Louis. an event based in fact. The participants – using vehicles such as a puppet show, dance number, card trick and magic act —   reveal their experiences with discrimination and horrors such as the 1938 Nazi pogroms against German Jews that led up to the Kristallnacht, or The Night of Broken Glass.

Act II is audio only – good headphones are advised in to be used so the excellent sound design can work its magic —  in which the passengers find out whether they will be accepted as refugees  or forced to return to Europe. The voices of those supporting the refugees are heard, as well as anti-immigrant voices that warn of dire economic problems they may cause if allowed to stay.

Act III shifts to the present. Ravvin is now an actor hired to perform in the production who finds he is unable to get off the boat. Bewildered and panicked, he wanders up and down the hallway of the ship, opening doors to cabins where scenes of Jewish life in America are revealed, complete with evidence of persecution.

The present is also represented by a trio – again thanks to green-screen technology —  having an impassioned conversation in the hallways of the St. Louis. There, seated around a small table, are Rachel, a rabbi (Anne Gottlieb); Leah (Lauren Elias), and Joseph (Nathan Malin), talking about the many forms antisemitism takes today, not only elsewhere but here in Boston.

Using its state-of-the-art technology so effectively, “Witness” is not only exciting, but poignant and powerful. The creators weave into the piece centuries of past antisemitism and then link it with both a notorious incident in World War II and incidents in today’s America, reaffirming the notion that Jews today are still trying to find a home that offers safe harbor, not unlike the refugees turned away on the MS St. Louis.

The Arlekin Players Theatre’s (zero-G) Virtual Theater Lab production of “Witness.” Conceived and directed by Igor Golyak. Script by Nana Grinstein. Additional scripting by Blair Cadden and Golyak. Produced by Sara Stackhouse. Scenography & Costume Design by Anna Fedorova. Virtual Design by Daniel Cormino. Sound Design by Viktor Semenov Tickets $25 at zerogrativity.art or 617-942-0022. Hosted on zerogravity.art through Jan. 23.