BWW Review: OSLO at Round House Theatre
Oslo is an amazing against-all-odds story of risk, trust, and diplomacy. It is about overcoming hard-and-fast assumptions. Oslo shows the value in finding common ground and allowing ourselves to hope. This Round House Theatre production is a wonder-a brilliant heartfelt, heart-filling experience.
In 1993, when interactions between Israel and Palestine were bloody, intransigent, and seemingly hopeless, when US-led peace negotiations flagged, a husband-and-wife Norwegian team quietly stepped in and dared to believe peace not only could be achieved but they could help birth it. J.T. Rogers' award-winning play is based on the true story of Terje Rød-Larsen and Mona Juul who set up secret back-channel peace talks in a quiet chateau outside Oslo, Norway. Rød-Larsen, a sociologist specializing in politics and negotiation, and Juul, a diplomat in the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, insisted on an incremental and highly personal process of "gradualism" where the participants are individuals-not just delegation members-who eat, drink, socialize, and share together.
"It is only through the sharing of the personal that we can see each other for who we truly are," says Rød-Larsen. Together the group opens up to empathy, a grudging trust, and a shared quest for peace.
Director Ryan Rilette assembles a strong and charismatic cast of 15 actors in 21 roles. There's light, spirit, and humor in their work, stemming from Rilette's deft direction and Rogers' wonderful script. The Oslo Peace Accords are an accomplishment that truly inspires wonder and awe, but here it's not treated as a rarefied museum piece under glass, it is a marvel propelled by a beating, human heart.
The play is nearly three hours-before you throw up your hands and declare, "I'm out!" know it's a crisp, necessary, and surprising three hours that never flag. There is some context and exposition needed, but everything is included thoughtfully and with purpose. There are wonderful moments of grace and humor. There are also beautiful quiet moments like a hand extended in friendship and respect, or learning that the unusual sound at the other end of the speaker phone is a table of officials breaking down in tears (as did many of us in the audience).
At the center of the production are the diplomatic duo Terje Rød-Larson (played by Cody Nickell) and Mona Juul (portrayed by Erin Weaver). Together they are steady and assured, a team who (almost always) has each other's back. Nickell and Weaver are beautifully paired, compelling to watch, strong and confident.
We come to know each individual who comes to the bargaining table. Maboud Ebrahimzadeh is Ahmed Qurie, the Palestine Liberation Organization's Finance Minister, a father who delights in his daughter and has not seen his own father in the many years of political turmoil. Ahmad Kamal portrays Hassan Asfour, an official PLO liaison, whose ardent and consistent default to his avowed Communist beliefs provide a fun eyeroll for all.
The rotating Israeli contingent begins with earnest academics Ron Pundak (Gregory Wooddell) and Yair Hirschfield (Sasha Olinick), two professors of economics at the University of Haifa. Alexander Strain portrays Yossi Beilin, the Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister who is first approached with the idea by Juul and Rød-Larsen who must officially remain apart but gets pulled in as the negotiations bear fruit. Soon more senior officials Uri Savir (Juri Henley-Cohn) and John Taylor Phillips (Joel Singer) are brought in. It is interesting to see the room tip and reset as the group adapts to new energy and input, new people to read and assess.
The arc of Palestinian Qurie and Israeli Savir building a relationship, at first wary and cautious and at the end paired in understanding and commitment, provides some of the play's most human and memorable moments. The raw interaction between actors Ebrahimzadeh and Henley-Cohn shows the great risk and shared pledge that propelled the process. The actors shared with us a bond-we learn that real-life Qurie and Savir remain great friends to this day.
This is an ensemble piece and every actor has great moment so shine: Conrad Feininger with the gravitas of Shimon Peres, the goofy swagger of security team Trong (John Austin) and Thor (Michael Sweeney Hammond), the pomposity of the American diplomat (Michael Sweeney Hammond), the bluster of Norwegian official Johan Jogen Holst (Todd Scofield), the insistence of German wife Susannah Morgan Eig, or Kimberly Gilbert's sweet cook and hostess Toril Grandal, whose homey waffles should have earned a Nobel Peace Prize. No matter how brief the scene, each actor invests purpose and individuality that makes a memorable whole.
The production elements were essential to the experience. In particular, Jared Mezzochi's projections gave historical and geographical context, while providing great beauty and a sense of space. They worked seamlessly with Misha Kachman's scenic design, a flexible space that transformed from hilltop chateau, to Scandinavian apartment, to a lavash four-star hotel. The stage of the Lansburgh is ample, but when needed Kachman drew us in, elbow-to-elbow, around the cramped negotiating table. Jesse Belsky's lights, Matthew M. Nielson's sound and composition, and Ivania Stack's costumes rounded out the experience. A production like this, with voices from Norway, Palestine, Israel, the US, and Germany benefits from the dialect coaching of Dawn-Elin Fraser.
This is a play made for wonderfully-wonky DC audiences. It is politics at its best. It is also DC actors and theater professionals at their best, working together to spark ideas and stir our emotions. Ryan Rilette and Round House Theatre bring us a remarkable story, an amazing script, and a marvelous cast and designers for a truly memorable production.
It is a story of hope and triumph. Yet sadly, Oslo also reminds us that peace is ephemeral. I am left with lyrics from another great work of nation-building:
"Don't let it be forgot
That once there was a spot,
For one brief, shining moment
That was known as Camelot."
For one brief, shining moment there was a hard-fought, miraculous Oslo Peace Accord and we are all the better for learning more of the back story through Oslo.
Runtime: Approximately 2:50 with one intermission.
Oslo by J.T. Rogers is produced by Round House Theatre and performed at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th Street NW, Washington, DC 20004. The production runs through May 19 on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays at 7:30 pm; Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm; Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 pm; and Thursdays at 12:00 pm. For tickets or further information on the production and its series of special events, please visit the Round House website here.
Photo credit: Kaley Etzkorn