The night I saw “Witness,” a rabbi and several members of his congregation were being held hostage in a synagogue near Fort Worth, Texas. The live scene of the police gathered on the street outside the synagogue was inserted into “Witness” – proof that this work of theater was live…and relevant.
“Witness” is billed as a “virtual documentary theater piece” about Jewish immigration in the face of antisemitism. But the bulk of it is both more particular and more peculiar than that. It’s the latest experiment from the Boston-based Arlekin Players Theater’s Zero Gravity Virtual Theater Lab, which was created during the pandemic and last year presented “ChekhovOS,” a dazzling cutting-edge work of interactive online theater. “Witness,” which is available live online through January 23, is less clever technically, and more chaotic theatrically, but, despite some befuddling choices, the subject matter makes it provocative and powerful.
“Witness” begins with a series of computer-generated animations of a huge passenger ship, both its monumental exterior and its luxury interior, that look to be straight out of the movie “Titanic.” But this is another doomed ship from history, the MS St. Louis, which in 1939 set sail with some 900 Jewish refugees from Hamburg, Germany, but was denied entry first by Cuba, then the United States, and Canada. The ship was forced to return to Europe, and more than a quarter of the passengers were eventually murdered in the Holocaust.
Act I presents the stories of some of the specific passengers, based on actual journals and interviews from the real passengers on board the ship. We can click on links and see photographs and read accounts. We also hear voiceovers. Gisela Klepl (Polina Vikova) recalls how two men came to her home in the middle of the night and told her father “Pack your bag. Get your passport,” while another young woman, Liesl Joseph (Rimma Gluzman) describes the devastating effect of Kristallnacht on her family.
But, in researching the voyage, the creative team for “Witness” learned that there was a talent show on board the St. Louis. This obviously tickled their fancy, since that’s what’s in the foreground of all the testimony. Gisela and Liesl are heard as a voiceover while on stage in the ship’s theater we see them together performing a skating routine with their fingers on the mirrored top of a table. This is odd enough, but then we the audience members are asked to vote from one to four stars for each of the acts, so that, after tallying up our ranking, the emcee (Gene Ravvin) can choose a winner. I assume that this stab at interactivity was meant 1. To help prove that what we were seeing was live, and 2. To be engaging rather than unsettling. But it made me wonder whether the vote was actually cast for the most horrible stories told rather than for the best amateur act.
In Act II, various voices in the dark – a rabbi, passengers, newscasters, U.S. Secretary of State – present the public drama of the refusal to accept the refugees. We hear a young American girl say: “Please let them land in America… We have three rooms that we do not use. Mother would be glad to let someone have them. “
Act III keeps us on the ship, but brings us to contemporary times. In a talkback after the show, Arlekin’s artistic director Igor Golyak, who is a Russian Jewish immigrant, said that all the testimony and debate in “Witness” comes either from documents or from interviews with people past and present. The actors in Act III, voicing the views of real-life people, tell stories of present-day antisemitism, and debate what it means to be a Jew. Leah (Lauren Elias), who was the stage manager for the talent show, is the most vociferous. She blasts some on the American Left for their attitude toward Israel and American Jews. She blasts “Please Like Me Jews [who] truly believe…that if they just be quiet and don’t make waves” that they will be accepted. She even blasts Boston theater for its selective stand against injustice. “Land acknowledgements, Black Lives Matter, stopping Asian violence. And it’s been great…But then, I was really sort of waiting for them to make this statement: ‘We also condemn antisemitism that is literally happening in our own backyard.’ But it never came.” Intertwined among these conversations are surreal scenes of the Emcee, wandering the corridors of the St. Louis, stumbling upon a Russian wedding party, a female Israeli soldier, Lady Liberty, and lost refugees, and winding up discombobulated – not sure whether he’s an actor during a 21st century pandemic inside a theater at 368 Hillside Avenue in Needham Massachusetts, or a doomed passenger in 1939. “It was supposed to be different in America. And now look. We have armed police people standing in the doorway of synagogues on Shabbat morning.”
“This Beautiful Future”
“This Beautiful Future,” in person at Theaterlab through January 30, takes place during a night’s dalliance between a young German soldier and a French teenager in an abandoned house in Chartres, France in August, 1944. In-between the scenes with 16-year-old Otto (Justin Mark) and 17-year-old Elodie (Francesca Carpanini), two older people, Paul (Austin Pendleton) and Alwynne (Angelina Fiordellisi), stand in a booth at the back of the stage and sing love songs into their microphones, karaoke style (complete with projected lyrics.) Given the appealing cast and the intimate setting (just two dozen people attended the performance I saw, and the theater wouldn’t seat much more), one could almost take in the play initially as an uncomplicated love story (especially if one didn’t know any English.) The young lovers, usually half-dressed, engage in playful pillow and water fights, carefully nurture an egg hoping it will hatch, make love. But at one point, they hear a loud explosion and take cover; immediately afterwards, the older couple sing Charles Trenet’s 1938 French song “Boum,” with lyrics translated into English:
When we’re a bride and groom
Oh won’t my heart go boom, Boom-tiddy-boom
‘Cause I love you
This juxtaposition was jarring; not provocative, just tasteless. But it gets far worse.
Perhaps the New York production of this 75-minute play by Rita Kalnejais, an Australian writer based in London, was just poorly timed for me. I saw it not only on the same weekend as “Witness” and the Texas synagogue hostage situation, but also during the surge of a highly infectious variant of COVID-19, which invariably makes me ask myself: Was this worth the risk? N95 or KN95 masks are required to attend “This Beautiful Future” (if you don’t have one, they’ll give you a KN95 mask as you enter.) But I found myself in need of greater protection, because the playwright’s glibness felt like an assault. She makes Elodie an epileptic, seemingly just so she can have a dramatic fit on stage. Worse, much worse, the playwright makes Otto a committed Nazi, who goes on at some length at how deeply he admires “Mr. Hitler.”
I get that the play is a variation on the age-old theme of star-crossed love sprouting in the harshest of terrain; I thought I even detected in Otto’s pro-Nazi rapture an echo of the admirers of certain current-day public figures (“He’s not pretending to be anything but who he is. He’s like: This is me. Take it or leave it.”) But we also learn that Otto shot 34 civilians as a member of a firing squad, that the empty house they’re using was once that of a Jewish family Elodie knew, now dead, and that Otto thinks that it’s good that Jews are being killed (though he doesn’t express his belief quite so bluntly): “There’s nothing cruel about choosing who lives and who dies…This is about choosing a future where everyone’s clean.” I don’t recall Elodie reacting to any of this, but how does the playwright expect the audience to react? What is the point? I couldn’t figure it out, and I stopped wanting to. Kalnejais seems to be treating the Holocaust as no more than an available tool for dramatic effect, a little spice in her overall love potion. That poisoned the play for me.
Online Through January 23
Running time 90 minutes
Written by Nana Grinstein with Blair Cadden & Igor Golyak
Conceived and directed by Igor Golyak
Scenography and costume design by Anna Fedorova
Virtual Design by Daniel Cormino
Sound Design by Viktor Semenov
Director of Photography/Editor, Anton Nikolaev
Produced by Sara Stackhouse
Featuring the Arlekin Acting Company (full cast and creative team)
“This Beautiful Future,”
HERE at Theaterlab through January 30
Running time: 75 minutes no intermission
Written by Rita Kalnejais
Directed by Jack Serio
Scenic Design: Frank J. Oliva
Lighting Design: Stacey Derosier
Costume Design: Ricky Reynoso
Sound Design: Christopher DarbassieProjection Designer: Lacey ErbMusic Director: Emily Erickson
Cast: Francesca Carpanini and Justin Mark with Austin Pendelton and Angelina Fiordellisi