Streaming multi-media production Witness arrives on our screens at a time when anti-semitism is on the rise in our country. Incorporating material from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and employing live actors in a virtual space, the docudrama uses the journey of the MS St. Louis to explore the history of persecution of the Jews. In May of 1939, the cruise ship filled with Jews escaping the Nazis was on its way to Havana. According to museum records, of the 937 onboard, only 18 were granted visas. The rest were turned away from both Cuba and the United States and sent back to Western Europe. Conceived and directed by Igor Golyak, the work threads together the lives of those ill-fated passengers with stories of more recent Russian Jewish immigrants like Golyak himself as well as contemporary headline-making hate crimes.
Audience members are requested to arrive at the site ten minutes early dressed in period costume with drink in hand. “Joining” the crowd on the ship is easy and a quick sound check ensures that you will get the full audio experience (or take a moment to reload the page.) Dialogue is spoken in multiple languages and subtitled in English.
The first act uses as a framework the talent show that was an actual shipboard activity. Against a beautifully rendered virtual environment created by Daniel Cormino, the production pulls us into the main room of the ship for a performance which blends vaudevillian entertainment with experiences of the real passengers. Director Golyak allows the camera to wander as our eyes might. Two women cleverly “figure skate” using their fingers in sand while recounting the Kristallnacht. A man builds a house of cards while vividly describing the displacement of families. After each one, the audience is asked to award one to four stars. Throughout, the Emcee (Gene Ravvin) — seemingly the only character who knows he is in a green screen studio — uses slapstick humor to keep the energy flowing. And Lady Liberty (Darya Denisova) selects the lottery numbers which summon the next participant to the stage. It is an uneasy blend that is quite effective at times, particularly when the ghostly shipboard audience is in view.
An audio-only second act crafted by Viktor Semenov is the most impactful, with members of the cast reading correspondence from the museum archive. Audience members are encouraged to wear high quality headphones in order to experience the pull of the Binaural audio, designed to create a sense of 3D sound. Studies have shown that people believe what they see over what they hear. Deprived of visuals we have no option but to focus on the words of the people involved.
Staged primarily in the hallway of the ship, Act III takes place in the present. The conversation is dominated by Leah (Lauren Elias) who is incensed about the growing calls for Jews to assimilate. As someone who can’t be bothered to distinguish between a woman of Puerto Rican decent, a Somali immigrant, a first generation Palestinian American, and the first Black woman to represent Massachusetts in the House— the state in which all the characters reside — and who also discusses the current political backdrop while leaving out our historically significant Jewish Second Husband, she is a flawed spokesperson for her viewpoint. A counterposition that the Oslo Accords were a lost opportunity is dispatched in a few sentences delivered by Joseph (Nathan Malin) without sufficient context to enlighten anyone who isn’t familiar with that 1993 event. The most emotionally charged outlook is expressed by the Emcee who is trying to reconcile the view he has of himself as a true American with the ways in which he and his family are perceived by others.
An artful entry into the developing world of online theater, Witness hints at the future of the form. It has important information to share, though the jarring shifts in tone of Nana Grinstein’s script result in a lack of cohesion. It’s technically ambitious and unsurprisingly I encountered video glitches and broken links. Those did not mar a generally involving experience. What is truly disappointing is to be invited to join a conversation and find instead that one is attending a lecture, even if it is a well researched and reasoned one.
Presented by Zero Gravity (zero-G) Virtual Theater Lab and Boston’s Arlekin Players Theatre, performances are scheduled through next weekend, January 21-23. Though played out in real time, the web-based show can be accessed from anywhere with a good internet connection. Tickets are $25. Running time is approximately 90 minutes with an additional 30 minute talk-back. Visit https://www.zerogravity.art for more details.