Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
J.T. Rogers' Oslo, currently receiving a magnificent staging by Marin Theatre Company, is a voyeur's dream, taking its audience behind closed doors and into secret meetings to tell the thrilling story of how a Norwegian government official and her husband (a director of a political research foundation) managed to bring together representatives from Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to hammer out the deal that became known as the Oslo Accords, which for the first time saw the PLO recognizing the state of Israel, and Israel in return acknowledging the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people.
On a gorgeous set created by designer Sean Fanning, Rogers takes us inside the back rooms, government offices, tandoori restaurant, and park benches where the difficult and highly sensitive negotiations took place, allowing us to see a world where lies (or "constructive ambiguity," in the words of one character), diplomacy, anger and passion are put to use in a noble attempt to bring peace to a region roiling with racial and cultural enmity.
In 1993, the Gaza Strip (a narrow bit of land on Israel's west coast, stretching 25 miles north from the Egyptian border) was one of the most densely populated places on Earth, and also one of the most dangerous, with the First Intifada leading to violence and recrimination on both sides. The whole world shuddered at the horrors taking place, but all attempts to broker a peace failed, until Terje Rød-Larsen (founding director of the Fafo Foundation, played by Mark Anderson Phillips) convinced his wife Mona Juul (Erica Sullivan) that he had an approach to bring the Israelis and Palestinians into negotiations. Juul, a Norwegian diplomat with significant Middle East experience, took the idea to her boss Johan Jorgen Holst, who reluctantly approved the attemptso long as no one, especially American diplomats, would know about it.
We know how this endsin a signing ceremony and a historic handshake between PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who would later be assassinated for his "capitulation" by an Israeli ultranationalist at an event in support of the Oslo Accords. But the outcome is not the story, and with J.T. Rogers' taut (even at nearly three hours) script, under the skilled direction of Jasson Minadakis, the secret story plays out with electrifying results.
The 14-member cast Minadakis has assembled is close to perfection. In an ensemble of this size, it's far too easy for there to be an imbalance in skill or passion or verisimilitude. Not here, for every single actor inhabits his or her role with heart and subtlety and commitment. Brian Herndon's portrayal of Yair Hirschfeld (an Israeli professor of economics who is asked to make the first contact with the PLO) is magnificent, displaying a reticence and hesitation to take those first, dangerous steps that sparks sympathy and deep human understanding. But this can be said of the entire cast, each of whom brings a moving sense of empathy and vitality to their characters.
Oslo is not an easy night at the theater, dealing with sensitive diplomatic machinations, but it is so skillfully wroughtby playwright J.T. Rogers and the cast and creative crew of Marin Theatre Companythat the voyeur in me was riveted from start to finish.
Oslo, through October 21, 2018, at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Sundays at 7:30pm, with matinees Saturdays (October 6, 13, and 20), and Sundays (October 7, 14, and 21) at 2:00pm. Tickets range from $22-$60, and are available at marintheatre.org, or by calling the box office at 415-388-5208.