Theater Review: OSLO (TimeLine Theatre at Broadway Playhouse in Chicago)

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by Lawrence Bommer on September 19, 2019

in Theater-Chicago


Clandestine and volatile, high-stakes diplomacy can be as taut as any courtroom drama. It’s hard to imagine a story more intrinsically theatrical than the real-life crises and complications that transform Oslo into a foreign-affairs thriller. Now at the Broadway Playhouse in a crackling collaboration between TimeLine Theatre Company and Broadway in Chicago, it’s history on steroids.

J.T. Rogers’ 2017 Tony Award winner takes us behind the scenes to the back-channel talks that led to the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords between Palestinians and Israelis. The treaty was a stab at peace in a Middle East where past pain—the Intifada against the Diaspora–dictates future suffering. It doesn’t matter that it didn’t succeed any more than the 1978 Camp David agreement between Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin. That it happened and how hold out hope and make Oslo’s “different narrative” a non-negotiable wonder.

Rogers has said that his chief interest lies in “stories framed against great political rupture, about people who struggle with and against unfolding world events and who are permanently changed through that struggle.”

Part fiction but also drawing from recent revelations, this sprawling 165-minute historical drama employs 13 actors to play 21 characters. The principals in this agreement may have been P.L.O. chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, but Oslo really spins the story of two Norwegian interlopers. These marginal movers managed to bring dire enemies t0gether to discover that peace is security and vice versa. To get there, the warring parties had to acknowledge the humanity of the “David and Goliath” foes they’ve demonized for half a century.

A social scientist who believes in the power of personal peacemaking (“the road will show itself”), Terje Rod-Larsen (Scott Parkinson) and his diplomat wife Mona Juul (Bri Sudia) use their connections and persuasion to invite lower-echelon Palestinian and Israeli functionaries to a pastoral estate outside the Norwegian capital (elegantly recreated by Jeffrey D. Kmiec). They may be flying blind but their eyes are open, their hearts even more so.

With the blessing of Norwegian foreign minister Jan Egeland (Bernard Balbot), Mona’s boss, they achieve incremental, baby-step concessions on the governance of the Gaza Strip, a two-state blueprint for recognition if not reconciliation, and the status of Jericho versus encroaching Israeli settlements. Throughout, like a learning loop, their progress fed on their desperation. Soon these outliers break enough barriers to encourage bigger players to replace them.

These include Ahmed Qurie (Anish Jethmalani), an Arab finance minister, and Israeli envoy Uri Savir (Jed Feder). Their backdoor pow-wows take on urgency as much as volume in screaming, cage-match conflicts enacted against Mike Tutaj’s projections of terrorist actions and army reprisals. After a “Declaration of Principles” is eked out, no less a high-level contact than Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres (Ron E. Rains) is drawn into the negotiations.

It’s a rocky roadmap for these well-intentioned partisans, requiring plausible deniability if their secret parlays should be exposed, therapeutic play-acting, and occasional jokes to lighten the tension. It helps that delicious Norwegian “good-will” waffles bring rare unanimity to the proceedings. As Lee Blessing did in his very similar A Walk in the Woods (also produced by TimeLine Theatre), Rogers carefully chronicles the small breakthroughs that build bridges and overcome various “constructive ambiguities”.

In Oslo psychology plays as big a role here as politics. That’s where director Nick Bowling, astutely shaping over a dozen of Chicago’s finest thespians, does wonders: He drives home the bargainers’ risk-taking to escape the past, their discoveries to embrace the future, and the humor that leavens the load. A dramatic detonator, Bowling is superb at triggering the taut truths in Rogers’ multiple showdowns. The actors’ timing proves just as ass-kickingly kinetic as the actual mediation was a quarter-century ago.

It’s incredibly rare for a play this long not to hide a single dull moment–but that’s the marvelous fate of Oslo and its audiences.

photos by Brett Beiner Photography

TimeLine Theatre
presented by Broadway in Chicago
Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut
ends on October 20, 2019
for tickets, call 800.775.2000 or visit Broadway in Chicago
for more info, visit TimeLine

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