Stage Door Review
Friday, February 15, 2019
by J.T. Rogers, directed by Joel Greenberg
Studio 180, CAA Theatre, Toronto
February 14-March 3, 2019
“Waffles and cigarettes”
Many people will remember the historic handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yizhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat after the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords on September 13, 1993 in the Rose Garden of the US White House. That two arch-enemies could agree to a peace plan after decades of bloodshed between their peoples seemed impossible. Yet, how the Peace Accords came about had nothing to do with face-to-face meetings of the two leaders or anything to do with the United States. It is this intriguing behind-the-scenes story that J.T. Rogers’ Tony-Award-winning play Oslo tells and that receives an impeccable production from Studio 180.
The idea of how to bring Israelis and Palestinians together for the first time to negotiate peace occurred to the husband-and-wife Norwegian diplomats Terje Rød-Larsen, Director of the Fafo Institute for Labour and Social Research, and his wife Mona Juul. On a trip to Israel, the couple witnessed a confrontation between Israeli and Palestinian soldiers and had the intuition that neither group wanted to be playing the aggressive role assigned them. The couple saw that public meetings between high-level diplomats, like those the US wanted to set up between Israel and the PLO, always failed because of the posturing of the negotiators to win praise back home outweighed the process of negotiating and made any concessions look like weakness. If, they thought, members of both sides could meet on a personal level in a place far removed from media attention, perhaps something useful could be achieved.
Rogers makes Mona (Marla McLean) the narrator of his play who takes us step-by-step through how she and Larsen (Blair Williams) set up the first meetings between two PLO representatives, Ahmed Qurie (Sanjay Talwar) and Hassan Asfour (Omar Alex Khan), and two economics professors from Israel, Yair Hirschfeld (Amitai Kedar) and Ron Pundak (Jordan Pettle). The question that Larsen and Juul constantly face, especially from Johan Jørgen Holst (Patrick Galligan), Minister of Foreign Affairs, is whether by creating such a secret back channel, they are undermining the official peace talks. The danger is that if this back channel is exposed it would create the scandalous that Norway, a neutral nation, was interfering in world politics.
Each time the Israeli’s “upgrade” their representation to match the level of the PLO contingent, first with Uri Savir (Jonas Chernick) then with Joel Singer (Alex Poch-Goldin), a conflict of personalities occurs and has to be calmed before negotiations can recommence. But, as we know, the negotiations ultimately were a success, even though the back channel had to be kept secret and the role of Juul and Larsen, even as facilitators had to remain unknown.
An epilogue tells us what we also know, i.e. that the the major players in the signing are now dead and that the Peace Accords almost immediately fell apart. Had Rogers carried his epilogue past 2016, his forecast for the future would have been even more gloomy. The focus of the play, therefore, is not whether not the plan of Larsen and Juul will succeed, but how they conceived of the plan, set it in motion and dealt with set-back after set-back to bring it to a successful conclusion. Oslo is thus the story of the idealism of daring individuals put into action. The play’s other heroes are the secret negotiators themselves who are willing, sometimes with difficulty, to see past their ideological differences, view each other as fellow human beings and work towards a peace that will benefit them all.
Such a play as this needs an especially intelligent, articulate cast, and that is exactly what director Joel Greenberg has assembled. Marla McLean is the perfect choice to play Mona Juul, the narrator. McLean’s beautifully modulated voice and charity of phrasing endows what could have been a dull tale of obscure goings-on with passion and purpose. More than any other actor, McLean keeps our interest piqued and through shading her speeches with irony, humour or dread endows the story with vitality.
Blair Williams is also the perfect choice for Mona’s husband Larsen. Williams imbues his speeches with Larsen’s burning idealism, a quality that needs Mona’s practicality to channel into useful activity. Williams lends Larsen a charming naïveté and a certain self-pride while McLean lends Mona greater scepticism and perspicacity. Together McLean and Williams show us how and why the Norwegian couple work so well together and accomplish so much.
As the PLO delegation, Sanjay Talwar brings out the enthusiasm of Ahmed Qurie while Omar Alex Khan gives Hassan Asfour a brooding, asocial nature that we are pleased to see begin to melt under the benign influence of his hosts and their talented cook. As the first Israeli delegation Amitai Kedar and Jordan Pettle convey the earnest unworldliness of well-meaning academics, with Pettle especially funny as Ron Pundak, who is overawed by his role and surroundings. Joining the first delegation is Jonas Chernick, who almost steals the show as the outgoing, rock-star-like diplomat Uri Savir with a seriously outsized ego. In contrast to Chernick is Alex Poch-Goldin as Joel Singer, whose nit-picking, accountant-like demeanour hides a real desire for progress.
The point is that by emphasizing the personal differences of these six negotiators, Rogers and the perceptive director Joel Greenberg reveal the men as individuals instead of ideological representatives. This is the whole point of Larsen and Juul’s idea – negotiations take place on a personal level. And, fortunately, Rogers has insured that we see the people on both sides as diverse.
In other roles, Sarah Orenstein is warm and amusing as Toril Grandal, the cook whose delectable cuisine seems to be the greatest uniting force among the negotiators. Patrick Galligan shines as the self-regarding, easily flattered Foreign Minister Johan Jøregn Holst. And Mark McGrinder brings out the seriousness and sense of danger felt by Yossi Beilin, the secret contact between the Norwegians and Shimon Peres.
Ken MacKenzie has a designed an elegant set placing the action within a white proscenium on the CAA Theatre stage behind which is a grey wall with 18th-century mouldings and a central door. Cameron Davis’s projections onto this wall instantly switch the scene from one location to the next without ever overwhelming the actors. Joel Greenberg has tightly choreographed the play’s multiple scene changes and, most importantly, has focussed on the through-line of the importance of idealistic action that helps ties the disparate elements of the play together.
There is no doubt that at some points Rogers’ enthusiasm for telling the whole story leads him to include almost too many details of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute for us to take in at one sitting. Nevertheless, anyone who sees the play will emerge with a far greater understanding of this dispute, what the issues are for each side and, inevitably, how a peace settlement that tries to undo forty years of engrained thinking on both sides could easily fail.
Nevertheless, even though Oslo is a play about the events of 26 years ago, the points it makes about the value of idealism over cynicism and of the possibility of individual action succeeding where governmental action does not should encourage us now that is it not foolish to hope that things can be better.
Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.
Photos: (from top) Marla McLean as Mona Juul and Blair Williams as Terje Rød-Larsen; Jonas Chernick as Uri Savir; Omar Alex Khan as Hassan Asfour, Sanjay Talwar as Ahmed Qurie, Alex Poch-Goldin as Joel Singer, Jonas Chernick as Uri Savi and Marla McLean as Mona Juul. © 2019 Cylla von Tiedemann.
For tickets, visit www.mirvish.com.