In Boston, COVID sends Russian-Jewish theater troupe through space and time

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BOSTON – When in-person gatherings were banned at the start of the pandemic, most theaters canceled shows and waited for things to settle. But Boston-based Russian-Jewish theater company Arlekin Players rose to the challenge and moved their performances online, combining elements of cinematography, theater, 3D design, video games, and Zoom calls to create unparalleled interactive shows.

The company’s latest production, titled “Witness,” takes place in real time on a 3D model of the MS St. Louis, the ill-fated ship on which 907 Jewish refugees attempted to flee Nazi Germany in 1939 – only to be rejected by Cuba, the United States and Canada. The ship was forced to return to Europe and more than 250 of its passengers died in the Holocaust.

The play, which runs through January 23, is a documentary theater assembled from dozens of interviews, documents from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, passenger diaries and historical newspaper articles. Even the 3D model of the ship is a replica of the real MS St. Louis.

The production waits and requires audience participation. Viewers are encouraged to use a laptop that allows them to roam the room freely, listen with their headphones rather than speakers, turn on their own cameras so others can meet them virtually, and even vote for their favorite artists. At one point, everyone is told to turn off their bedroom lights. The screen goes black and only the sound remains – the sound of the ship’s planks creaking in the sea, a knock on the door, footsteps approaching. It’s terrifying.

“I think the word ‘experimental’ should be in all theaters,” says Igor Golyak, founder of Arlekin Players. “If we’re not trying to do something new, then why make art? “

Yet as the play opens with a true story of the St. Louis – whose fateful journey began as a merry cruise ship trip with concerts every night, and a passenger later recalling that “the thing there is.” more amazing was that the crew treated us like human beings, to which we were no longer used ”- this quickly changes direction as Golyak puts modern Russian Jewish immigrants on the ship to the United States from 1939 It is as if they too are now looking for a safe harbor, somewhere free from anti-Semitism.

Igor Golyak, founder of the Arlekin Players. (YouTube screenshot)

“It’s not a Holocaust story,” Golyak says of his play. “It’s the story of having nowhere to go, of not feeling safe, of being in the middle of the ocean and feeling out of place.”

As they sail on the WWII ship, the Russian Jewish immigrants of 2022 today engage in discussions about anti-Semitism in America.

In particular, the play openly criticizes the reaction of the Boston theater community after a Russian-speaking rabbi was stabbed outside a synagogue last summer. One of the actresses says that after the attack she continued to wait for a statement condemning the anti-Semitism of the Boston theater community, but that statement never came.

“For me their silence is very strong,” she said around the room.

The cast of “Witness”, a new online production from the Arlekin Players. (Courtesy)

Golyak says he interviewed more than 70 Jewish immigrants around the world while working on “Witness,” most of them Russian-speaking immigrants.

“It’s not my opinion,” he said. “This is a perspective given to me by one of the interviewees. Boston’s theater scene is a very progressive and open-minded community. When there was the Black Lives Matter movement, all the cinemas sent emails, put them online, organized special programs. To a lesser extent, they responded similarly to Asian hatred. But when the question concerned the Jews, it was not so important. There were no support emails or articles on the Jewish hate website. There are 25 theaters in Boston. None of them spoke of anti-Semitism.

A scene from “Witness”, a new online production by Arlekin Players. (Courtesy)

According to Golyak, Jewish immigrants to the United States now have familiar discussions around their kitchen tables about where to flee next due to the rise of anti-Semitism and the “lack of security and belonging.”

“Jewish immigrants do not feel safe in America,” says Golyak. “They feel like they’re in America, they can’t talk about it anymore… People can’t say their position on Israel if it’s the wrong position. it is to wear [something] who identifies the person as Jewish and [then fearing that] they won’t get a job, they won’t be thrown into something.

Whether the Russian-Jewish community in the United States as a whole feels safe and discussing the possibility of packing is the subject of debate.

A scene from “Witness”, a new online production by Arlekin Players. (Courtesy)

A prominent member of Boston’s Russian-speaking Jewish community, Inessa Rifkin – who founded the Russian School of Mathematics, which has campuses in the United States and abroad – said that although she loved the play, she was surprised. by the amount of fear in it.

“Why such an emotion of fear? She asked Golyak in a virtual chat she led after the show. “I just don’t understand why a 47 year old man in America feels so uncomfortable on so many levels.”

Fear certainly resonates with “Witness” audiences, perhaps because the Holocaust is not safe in the past. In a strange twist of time travel, one of the Russian immigrant actors who lives in America today finds himself unable to descend from St. Louis. He proclaims helplessly that he is an American citizen, that he must get his son back and that he is not in his place in 1939. But in vain. He now faces the terrifying fate of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany.

German Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis, June 29, 1939 (public domain)

Golyak says he often had the same dream of struggling to escape the Nazis. His grandmother’s entire family, he says, was murdered in the Babyn Yar massacre in Kiev, Ukraine.

But when asked if he had personally experienced anti-Semitism while living in Boston, Golyak is vague.

“I feel it and I have felt it recently, but I don’t want to go into details because of the privacy,” he says.

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