At the TimeLine Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Chicago – “Oslo” recounts the story of one of the most improbable diplomatic events of the last generation. In 1994, representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the state of Israel signed a peace agreement, named for Oslo, the Norwegian city where most of the top secret negotiations were conducted. The agreement was intended to end decades of warfare between the Palestinians and Irsaelis and earned the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat and Israeli leaders Shimon Peres and Yitzak Rabin.

What the world didn’t know at the time was that the peace agreement was really the result of diligent labor from Terje Rod-Larsen and Mona Juul, a husband and wife pair of Norwegian diplomats. For several months the couple worked, without any official authority, to bring the Palestinians and Israelis to the negotiating table. As we know, the accord fell apart in just a few years and mistrust and violence again regained its destructive power in the Middle East. But the Oslo agreement is still a miracle of diplomatic perseverance. A pity it ultimately changed nothing in the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Photo Credit: Joe Mazza

American playwright J. T. Rogers took on a monumental challenge in dramatizing the peace process in “Oslo,” and he was rewarded with 2017 Tony Award as best play on Broadway. The show became a hit in both New York City and in London and is now receiving its Chicago premiere by the TimeLine Theatre, a company that has built a reputation for insightful and stageworthy productions of dramas on modern historical themes.

The TimeLine is going upscale with “Oslo,” premiering the play in the elegant midsized Broadway Playhouse on North Michigan Avenue instead of in TimeLine’s small theater on Chicago’s north side.

Enough background. What about the play? The verdict is mostly positive. Rogers has written an engrossing narrative filled with vivid real life characters and tense scenes, often leavened with humor. Rogers traces the history of the negotiations with clarity, presenting both sides of the Palestinian and Israeli sides without judging. Each side gets a hearing, stating the grievances that had separated the two for decades at the cost of thousands of lives and a common hatred that seemed insurmountable.

Rogers charts how Rod-Larsen and Juul took on the idea of a peace agreement without any outside assistance. Indeed all sides, including the Norwegian government, were hostile to the idea. But the Norwegian couple nursed the negotiations, tiny step by tiny step, bringing the sides together as human beings instead of implacable foes, gradually establishing a bond between the negotiators. Gradually, and with many bumps in the road, the sides came together, resulting in the formal acceptance of the agreement at a ceremony at the White House in that famous handshake between the leaders of the previously warring sides.

Rogers’s script has the ring of authenticity as the playwright speculates on what was said in those private meetings between the two sides. The issues are all on the historical record but how the Norwegian intermediaries managed to bridge the gap between the Israelis and Palestinians largely flows from the playwright’s imagination. There is complete credibility in what the characters said during those fateful months to bring the negotiations to a triumphant and unexpected conclusion.

Photo Credit: Joe Mazza

The play starts slowly as the Norwegian couple getting their pipedream in motion. It starts with a pair of Israeli university professions on one side and PLO finance minister Ahmed Qurie on the other. At first the concept of negotiation runs into the stone wall of distrust that has divided the sides since the 1940’s. Gradually the audience gets to know the major players in the drama as personalities rather than unyielding spokesmen for their sides. The give and take between the opponents is engrossing as the sticking points are gradually eroded away by the persistence of Rod-Larsen and Juul (the wife being the real driving force that propels the negotiations forward).

Most of the action is set in a stylish large drawing room in a mansion near Oslo. It’s a spacious environment but maybe robs the story of some intimacy. The large playing area does permit the effective use of film and projections but it would be interesting to see the play staged in a more confined arena that would better evoke the one-on-one tensions between the two sides.

The cast of 13 draws from some of Chicagoland’s finest performers, several playing multiple roles. Scott Parkinson plays Terje Rod-Larsen and Bri Sudia is Mona Juul, a pairing that beautifully combines the man’s emotional drive with the woman’s cooler, no nonsense style. Anish Jethmalani delivers a riveting performance as Ahmed Quire, superbly etching the character’s shift from unyielding adversary to willing acceptor of the peace accords. It’s a richly written role played with nuance and authority. The Palestinian side is complemented by a fine performance from Amro Salama as Qurie’s Communist Party colleague. The Israel side gets more numerical representation than the Palestinians, with spot-on performances from Bernard Balbot, Jed Feder, Ron Rains, Stef Tovar, and Tom Hickey. The Norwegian government is represented by David Parkes, Balbot, and Victor Holstein. The ensemble is handsomely rounded out by Bassam Abdelfattah and Juliet Hart, who play a half dozen characters.

TimeLine associate artistic director Nick Bowling does an unobtrusive but effective job of orchestrating the action, shifting between the humor and the tensions of the story. The action is realistic, with characters often stepping into a spotlight to talk directly to the audience. The device moves the plot along without seeming stagey. The design teams comes from the top shelf of Chicagoland theater—Jeffrey D. Kmiec (scenic design), Christine Pascual (costumes), Jesse Klug (lighting), Andre Pluess ( sound), and Mike Tutaj (projections).

The melancholy fact that the Oslo peace agreement didn’t last does not detract from the portrayal of the bargaining process that Rogers unfolds with such drama and intelligence. This is a literate meaningful play that does great credit to the TimeLine company. Hopefully, offering it at the high end Broadway Playhouse will broaden the organization’s audience base. It certainly burnishes the TimeLine reputation for staging absorbing, relevant, accessible theater.

‘Oslo’ gets a rating of

“Oslo” is being presented by the TimeLine Theatre through October 20 at the Broadway Playhouse, 175 East Chestnut Street. Most performances are Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., and Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. Tickets are $35 to $95. Call 800 775 2000 or visit www.timelinetheatre.com.

Contact Dan at:ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com                         September 2019

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