At first glance, the rehearsal room for “Witness,” a new work by Arlekin Players Theatre/Zero Gravity (zero-G) Virtual Theater Lab, looks like any other. Some actors gather around a set piece, running their lines while two others sit on the floor as director Igor Golyak discusses a scene with them.
But this is no ordinary stage. The floor and walls surrounding the actors are green screens, neutral backgrounds that allow projections to place actors in a specific milieu; three cameras are positioned to capture the scene from different angles; and a sound engineer ensures the voices can be heard while he monitors additional ambient sounds on his computer. Other computers manage the software that transforms the green background into a hallway of the SS St. Louis, which sailed from Hamburg, Germany, in 1939 with 937 Jewish passengers bound for Cuba, only to be turned away there and then denied access to several other ports before returning to Europe.
“Witness,” which will be presented virtually Dec. 10-Jan. 23 ($25, www.zerogravity.art), is the latest in Arlekin’s new work, following “State vs. Natasha Banina” and “chekhovOS/an experimental game/” (which will be performed for live and virtual audiences in New York in May and June), that juggles live performance, film, and interactive technology.
“The idea for ‘Witness’ began with the rise of antisemitism,” says Golyak, who is also the artistic director of Arlekin Players, based in Needham. “I was talking to a friend who said, ‘Where will we go next?’ and although he said it as a joke, it stuck with me.”
Golyak, who emigrated from Ukraine over a decade ago, asked his resident company members to reach out to Jewish immigrants from Austria, Germany, Israel, and elsewhere, and ask them about their experiences. They found common threads, including the hope for a better life in the United States but an often muted welcome when they arrived. When someone suggested he also speak to American Jews, Golyak says he was surprised to learn these Americans experienced the same outsider status, as well as fears for their safety.
He and his creative team, which includes Moscow-based documentary playwright Nana Grinstein and Arlekin’s resident dramaturg Blair Cadden, along with scenographer Anna Fedorova and virtual designer Daniel Cormino, decided to anchor the immigrant interviews with the historic story of the passengers on the St. Louis. With access to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum archives, the team crafted a documentary piece that combines the past with contemporary immigrant and American interviews.
“The interviews told us what the story was about,” says Golyak. “What does it feel like to be unwanted, trapped on a boat with nowhere to call home?”
Rimma Gluzman and Alex Petetsky, who have been part of the resident acting company for several years and serve as Arlekin board members, say reading the diaries and memoirs of the characters they portray was particularly powerful.
“I play a young woman named Liesl Joseph, who survived,” says Gluzman, who emigrated from Lithuania in 1989. “She says when Kristallnacht happened, her childhood ended.”
Petetsky says he also felt how torn the passengers were between the families they left behind, and their hope for the future. He plays Fritz Buff, whose diary excerpts reveal “a 17- or 18-year-old who was chosen as the one member of his family to go while the rest stayed behind. Such a weight of responsibility.”
In addition to the Arlekin company members, the cast includes local actors Anne Gottlieb, who has performed in Arlekin’s “The Seagull,” Lauren Elias, who is also the producing artistic director of Hub Theatre Company of Boston, and Nathan Malin, most recently seen in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s “The Sound Inside.”
“Igor is always pushing actors to go beyond what we’ve done before,” says Gottlieb, who plays a contemporary American rabbi in “Witness.” “It’s so brave to pioneer a new form that combines film, audio, live performance, and some pretty cutting-edge technology with an explosive subject.”
Cadden says that while the narrative relies on using words from primary sources, “we took some poetic license.”
“When we discovered the passengers on the St. Louis participated in a talent show, that offered a playful celebration of humanity that brings us closer to the individuals,” she says. “We chose acts — including a puppet show, a dance number, a card trick, a cooking demonstration, and a magic act — that help connect the stories. The performers are chosen by lottery, and introduced by an MC (Gene Ravvin), which parallels the experience of waiting for their number to come up on the immigration quota.”
But that’s only Act I.
Act II is audio only, in which the passengers learn their fate — whether they’ve been accepted as refugees or forced to return to Europe.
“We have a binaural microphone that creates a three-dimensional soundscape,” says producer Sara Stackhouse. “The sounds incorporated by sound designer Victor Semenov include Cuban voices, a baby crying, the boat moving through the water, among others.”
Besides Semenov and the Brazilian-based 3-D-lighting and -effects designer Cormino, the global collaboration also includes Austin de Besche and Anton Nikolaev on the film team. “Igor always has new ideas,” says Gluzman. “People are drawn to work with him because it’s exciting to be a part of this new work.”
Act III shifts to today, with Ravvin now an actor hired to perform in the production who finds he is unable to get off the boat. He wanders up and down the hallway of the ship, opening doors to cabins where scenes of Jewish life in America are revealed.
“The individual pieces are distinct,” Golyak says of “Witness,” “but they come together as a collage in a certain way.”
Terry Byrne can be reached at email@example.com.