Israel-Palestine conflict goes mano-a-mano in Marin Theatre Company’s ‘Oslo’
For the three hours of “Oslo,” the stakes remain unchanged. Accomplish an impossible task, somehow, magically, or all the secret negotiations leading to the 1993 Oslo Accords will fall apart, sending the Israel-Palestinian peace process back to square one, or making it even worse off than it was before.
At the same time, the stakes of J.T. Rogers’ Tony-winning play are also constantly changing, because each impossible task only breeds another one. Find someone who can credibly represent Israel when its laws bar its officials from meeting with the Palestine Liberation Organization. Get two men from opposite sides to walk into the negotiation room when one can’t even make an innocuous remark about the weather without dredging up decades-old wrongs. Conceal the whole process from top Norwegian officials who would think it was crazy, and persuade everyone who needs to know about it to risk losing their jobs.
The show’s Marin Theatre Company West Coast premiere, which opened Tuesday, Oct. 3, is a master class in the procedural thriller. In “Oslo,” the Oslo Accords are never an ungainly, endlessly complicated operation, spanning many months and countless names, as they are in the historical record. Rather, the show sticks ruthlessly to the single, intimate, human interaction that matters in the present moment: de-escalating a blowhard, convincing a skeptic, deflecting an intruder, soothing a wounded ego.
The mano-a-mano also drives the diplomatic philosophy of Terje (Mark Anderson Phillips), the Norwegian behind the accords, even though he’s not even a government official. But his wife, Mona (Erica Sullivan), is, and Terje (pronounced Tie-yuh), has little compunction — at times, too little — about combining her savvy and resources with his ambition and moxie as well as the altruism they share. His process “is rooted not in the organizational but in the personal,” he says. That means adversaries work behind closed doors without a facilitator; it means they drink together afterward and learn about each other’s families.
Rogers defines his array of characters as crisply as his situations, with single lines so finely chiseled they etch out the entire lives behind them. The cast, directed by Jasson Minadakis, bring aching, tremulous humanity to the text. When Israeli Professor Yair Hirschfeld (Brian Herndon) greets PLO Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie (J. Paul Nicholas) — as the first Israeli Ahmed has ever seen in the flesh — Herndon offers each phrase as if it’s an infant he’s leaving at the mercy of a deity. Nicholas gives Ahmed an exquisite, I-knew-that-already cool, but one whose facade cracks at opportunities for righteous indignation or sentimental antics.
Norwegian mediators Mona Juul (Erica Sullivan, left) and husband Terje Rød-Larsen (Mark Anderson Phillips) speak with Israel and the PLO.
Photo: Kevin Berne, Marin Theatre Company
As Mona, Sullivan has to act the part of a saint for most of the play, but even without the character flaws that make roles so juicy, she finds dynamism as the play’s moral center, her eyes fathomless wells of both terror and resignation as she stands in judgment of everyone around her and of herself.
Corey Fischer effortlessly commands as Shimon Peres, taking hold of a room as if it all fit in the palm of his hand. Charles Shaw Robinson makes delectable the narcissism of Johan Jorgen Holst, Norway’s foreign minister; when Mona and Terje stroke his ego, he accepts the tribute as if it’s the most natural and obvious thing in the world. As Uri Savir, the first Israeli official with whom the Palestinians negotiate, Paris Hunter Paul brings bombast worthy of an action movie. When he shuts the door on the Norwegians, he narrows his eyes as if to say, “No more Mr. Nice Guy.”
“Oslo” doesn’t exaggerate the positive impact of the Oslo Accords. Rogers is careful to point out the violence that erupted almost immediately after the treaty was signed. But nor does the show wholly despair of peace, even as the promise of the accords remains unfulfilled 25 years later. It is clear and unsentimental, balanced and methodical. Yet it also slyly asserts that our best shot at peace rests on the opposite — on humankind’s eternal, heedless optimism and ability to connect with one another, no matter what the cold, hard facts say.
— Lily Janiak, San Francisco Chronicle Read full review