Review: In ‘Witness,’ Seeking a Haven for Jewish Refugees

Aboard the luxury liner St. Louis, more than 900 passengers waited helplessly at sea. In May 1939, on the eve of World War II, they were Jewish refugees fleeing post-Kristallnacht Germany. Despite having papers meant to let them into Cuba, they were barred from disembarking once they got there.

Hoping for a haven, the boat lingered for a while off the Florida coast, while news stories chronicled the passengers’ increasing desperation. Yet the United States also refused the refugees. As the St. Louis carried them back to Hamburg in early June, The New York Times called it “the saddest ship afloat.”

That ship is the setting for “Witness,” a livestreaming documentary theater piece from Arlekin Players Theater in Needham, Mass., where the cast performs in front of green screens. Conceived and directed by Igor Golyak, Arlekin’s artistic director, the production bears witness to stories from wave after wave of Jewish refugees over many decades, and to what it sees as the eternal outsider experience of Jews in the United States.

But before its ghostly shipboard vaudeville begins, we watch the Emcee (Gene Ravvin) take a smoke break, venting about the wisdom of presenting this piece in this moment.

“The Holocaust, the St. Louis,” he says. “I don’t know if this is my thing. I don’t know if we need to talk about it now. I don’t.”

When I watched “Witness” on my laptop Friday night, that bit of fretful grousing had a very different feel than it surely would the next day, when a man in Texas took four hostages during a service at a synagogue, and a nearly 11-hour standoff with state and federal law enforcement officers ensued. Suddenly, once again, the urgency of discussing antisemitism was palpable, and not just to people who feel the menace of that bigotry all the time.

Written by Nana Grinstein, with Blair Cadden and Golyak, “Witness” is part variety show, pitting passengers against one another for an unnamed “fabulous prize.” The contest results are decided by the audience members, who vote on their screens after each act. The winner, the night I saw it,was the remarkably graceful “Skating on Glass,” set to voice-over memories of Kristallnacht.

With scenography and costumes by Anna Fedorova, virtual design by Daniel Cormino and excellent sound by Viktor Semenov, “Witness” often has the digitally buffed surreality of a video game, which might sound like an insult but is not. Like a lot of online theater, it also has a slight trying-too-hard feel.

Before the show starts, audience members are urged repeatedly to allow their computer’s camera to show them onscreen with the rest of the crowd during the performance. (There is no hint that acquiescing is optional, but it is.) When the wall of viewers periodically appeared, though, it often looked like people were reading something on their screens — which they might have been, since “Witness” offers chances to click for more historical context. As a visual, it didn’t exactly foster a feeling of connection.

“Witness” is an experimental production, with different energy to each of its three acts, the second of which is all audio, like a radio play. Where this multilayered show loses dramatic potency is in the last act, when contemporary characters take over. They talk about antisemitism in the 21st-century United States, but without depth, and only barely connect it to the hatred against other marginalized groups.

Even so, this piece does indeed bear witness to what happens when danger threatens Jews for being Jewish, and the culture shrugs.

“It was supposed to be different in America,” the Emcee says. “And now look.”


Livestreaming through Jan. 23; Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

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