Wednesday, October 3, 2018

"Oslo"


Oslo
J.T. Rogers

J Paul Nicolas, Ashkon Davaran, Ryan Tasker, Brian Herndon & Paris Hunter Paul
On September 13, 1993, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Liberation Organization negotiator Mahmoud Abbas signed a Declaration of Principles in which the PLO recognized the legitimacy of the State of Israel and the Israelis recognized the PLO as the official representative of the Palestinian people and partner with Israel for further negotiations.  Containing many other initial agreements (including creating a Palestinian Authority for self-government in parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip), the historic signing in Washington, D.C. was the result of several months of under-cover, highly secretive negotiations in Oslo, Norway between a small group of Israelis and Palestinians – with no involvement and little knowledge of the Americans.  How those series of secret talks were initiated and how they proceeded is the subject of one of the most celebrated plays of the new century, Oslo by J.T. Rogers.  Marin Theatre Company opens its 2018-19 season with a West Coast premiere of the 2017 Tony-winning Best Play in a tension-filled production that in every respect imaginable is stunning, engrossing, and eye-opening while at the same time is genuinely heart-warming and continually surprising with its laugh-aloud humor.

Erica Sullivan & Mark Anderson Phillips
Through a mutual friend, playwright J.T. Rogers happened to meet a Norwegian social scientist named Terje Rød-Larsen.  The story that his new acquaintance related of how he and his wife, Mona Juul (an official in Norway’s Foreign Ministry) helped orchestrate secret talks between age-old, Middle East enemies inspired J.T. Rogers to pen a masterful script about a story heretofore largely untold.  He learned -- as do we now with our attention fixed almost breathlessly to the events unfolding on the stage before us – that in a visit to Jerusalem, Terje and Mona witnessed an uprising in the making.  There, they saw two young boys, one Israeli and one Palestinian, facing each other with guns pointed at the other.  Terje’s dream at that point becomes to find a way “to give those boys a different narrative.”

Acting audaciously and with no authority, Terje arranges a meeting in Oslo between two economics professors from the University of Haifa and the PLO’s Finance Minister along with a PLO liaison – only informing Johan Jørgen Holst (Norway’s Foreign Minister and boss of Mona) after the four are on their way to Oslo.  That these initial four have any blessing by those who really count (i.e., Prime Minister Rabin and Chairman Arafat) is unclear, but that does not stop Terje from claiming that they do.  The initial reaction of the Foreign Minister to Terje’s meddling in affairs that the U.S. has been the prime negotiator for two decades is, “You are a fucking dilettante.”  However, Terje is stubbornly unstoppable because in his mind, “If you succeed, you will change the world.”

Mark Anderson Phillips is the bull-headed, highly excitable, and sky-high optimistic dreamer/orchestrator, Terje Rød-Larsen.  If ever there were a part written for this perennially Bay Area favorite, it is the role of Terje.  While he has not quite mastered a Norwegian-sounding accent, Mr. Phillips in all other dimensions convinces us that a nobody like Terje could in fact have pulled off the near-impossible task of bringing these two warring parties to the negotiating table and coming up with an accord that for years had eluded them and their American partners.  The intensity and determination that permeates Mr. Phillips’ entire body – veins popping, breath huffing, eyes steeled, fists pumping -- convince us that Terje is a force that cannot be easily curtailed.  Who else would pick up the phone in the middle of the night to call Chairman Arafat – someone he has never met or talked to -- so that Arafat can, without warning, negotiate on the phone final details of an accord with Shimon Peres?

But it is the more calm, more grounded approach, advice, and guidance of Terje’s wife, Mona Juul, that ensures he does not at times blast the process to bits and pieces through his erupting emotions.  Erica Sullivan is the equally daring, but more reserved, Mona; and she is nothing short of magnificent in the role.  Often our spotlighted guide to give us needed background and historical details to the whirlwind of proceedings occurring before us, her Mona exudes her own brand of unbounded resolve and sure-footed confidence but with a manner that the foreign representatives around her can more readily trust than the boy-like exuberance of her husband. 

The Cast of "Oslo"
The series of meetings begin with awkward hesitation and inbred distrust; but through the power of Johnny Walker Red, Norwegian waffles, and Terje’s nonnegotiable rule of engagement that the players must first get to know each other personally, something magical begins to happen.  Hilariously told jokes are shared; moving stories about parents are related; and two new, proud dads discover that their Israeli and Palestinian daughters in fact have the same name.  Moments of tense stalemate, of anger on the verge of actual blows, and of dead-ends with no apparent means of escape are in juxtaposition with other moments of mutual listening for deeper understanding, of surprising discoveries of agreements, and of difficult decision to compromise.  Social scientist Terje’s touted, negotiation process of “gradualism” unfolds before our eyes.  It is as if we are watching both a documentary of a recent history we vaguely know and of a drama of unlikely but fascinating fiction that seems impossible ever to have occurred. 

Clearly, Director Jasson Minadakis has made hundreds of the right choices in terms of pace and pause, of uninterrupted chaos and unchallenged calm as well as of breakpoint emotions and backed-off reflections.  With a liberal allowance of individual actor interpretation but always with firm handle of the many comings and goings, he orchestrates this large cast of fourteen who play over twenty different roles.  He has taken the incredibly well-written script of J. T. Rogers and ensured that a story both enriched and complicated by its many meetings of many different people of several nationalities is clearly told with equal measures of tension and heart.

Beyond Terje and Mona, many other personalities parade across the stage, often bursting at the seams with ego, conviction, and self-righteousness.  Each leaves a memorable mark on the unfolding drama and in our memories as audience.  While difficult to call out every performance in such a large cast, mention must be given to the initially timid and later much more bold professors from Israel  -- Brian Herndon as Yair Hirschfeld and Ryan Tasker as Ron Pundak – and to their Palestinian counterparts in those initial encounters, J. Paul Nicholas as Ahmed Qurie and Ashkon Davaran as Hassan Asfour.  These four all bring a genuine humanity and a believable transformation to men who arrive with no reason ever to like those on the other side of the table, given the atrocities each has witnessed perpetrated by those the others represent.  

J. Paul Nicolas, Mark Anderson Phillips, Erica Sullivan & Paris Hunter Paul
Paris Hunter Paul is particularly striking in his singularly powerful depiction of Uri Savir, Director-General of Israel’s Foreign Ministry.  Arriving later into the process with a stone-faced, barking set of demands, his Uri’s own changes as he forges a trusting relationship with Ahmed Qurie are remarkable to behold, with kudos going to both actors in performances convincing and captivating. 

Charles Shaw Robinson too is exceptional as harsh-skeptic-turned-fierce-advocate of Terje’s process in the role of Norwegian Foreign Minister Johan Jørgen Jolst.  His wife, Marianne Heiberg (Marcia Pizzo), joins -- among several roles she plays -- Mr. Robinson as the hosting staff at the private estate where the talks take place.  As housekeeper and cook Finn Grandal, Ms. Pizzo is one of the night’s sheer delights with her contagious charm and wit.  Finally, a tall, commanding Corey Fischer is uncanny in his brief presence and performance as Shimon Peres.

The overall excellence of this Marin Theatre production is due not only to the cast and director but also to a creative team that excels with visual and aural accomplishments from beginning to end.  The estate set design of Sean Fanning is both grand and simple in its elegance and has an instant flexibility that allows the many scene changes to occur seamlessly.  The lighting of York Kennedy provides an impressive backdrop for mood and time changes and exacting spots for moments singular in storytelling intent.  Mike Post's backdrop projections remind us the real-time, often violent events going on even as the negotiations for long-term peace are occurring.  Chris Houston has composed a score that has an air of urgency and warning of something big about to happen, while Sara Huddleston’s sound design delivers that music and other well-balanced effects masterfully.  Finally, as always, Fumiko Bielefeldt has designed costumes that define and dignify the subject matter while also capture some of the heart and humor conveyed along the way.

If ever there were a “must-see” production, Marin Theatre Company’s two-hour, thirty-minute staging of J.T. Rogers’ Oslo is one.  While we today know that the Oslo Accords have not yet led to the resolution of a myriad of outstanding issues between the Israelis and the Palestinians, we can still hope for an eventual realization of the toast Uri Savor at one point makes:  “To the future, may it be different and may it come soon.”

Rating: 5 E, “Must-See”

Oslo continues in an extended run through October 28, 2018 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley.  Tickets are available online at https://tickets.marintheatre.org/Online/ or by calling the box office at 415-388-5208, Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 5 p.m.

Photo Credits:  Kevin Berne


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