Regional Reviews: St. Louis
An often gleeful, conspiratorial tone fills the air in Oslo, the story of secret diplomacy to end an intractable war. It's also director Steve Woolf's farewell production as Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Artistic Director, after building the Rep into the most prestigious theater in town. Here, the backdrop of Oslo is familiar, chaos and bloodshed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but Mr. Woolf's own personality seems to set the tone: boyish and endearing, while juggling great issues.
J.T. Rogers' 2016 behind-the-scenes drama won the Tony Award for Best Play in 2017. It begins as the story of angry men, steeped in irony over the unbreakable standoff in the Middle East. But even as confrontation softens into to humanity, the irony remains, blossoming into fine comedy as the two and a half hour long play darts around the globe. For, in 1992, as much as Israelis and Palestinians had grown anguished over the territory won 25 years earlier, there's something they find very tempting about a new round of peace talks, in secret, in far-flung Norway. Fierce dogmas have led them to impasse, but their personalities will gradually mesh, due to the unorthodox circumstances.
The pre-existing U.S.-led talks seem to have gone flat. Perhaps "the thrill is gone," as blues artist Roy Hawkins once sang. But a Norwegian sociologist has gotten the reckless idea to de-contextualize the negotiations with different participants, and the unintended effect makes it all seem like an illicit love affair, instead of a neverending snarl-fest. Jim Poulos is charming, even musical, as Terje (the sociologist) and his outsider status serves everyone nicely. The clandestine nature of secret talks, away from the oppressive tone of sanctimonious American diplomats (whom we'll meet later), gives new life to these meetings.
In effect, it's as if they're all cheating on their wives, though in this case it's their own governments and alliances they're sneaking out on. A lust of betrayal seems to propel the talks all the way through, first against Washington, and later a betrayal of these diplomats or that handler, and eventually of their own leaders, bringing the two sides back together, year after year. They prevaricate with their own chieftains on the phone or in person, or don't even bother to consult with them at all, as their joint futures are all being hammered out in Scandinavian rectitude. That's how we're reminded that there's something even deeper in men, beneath the Jewish or Islamic dialectics of sin and redemption. In Oslo, it's more of an escape from a dead-end situation.
Kathleen Wise plays Mona, very briskly leading us through the talks, and looking grim when multi-media projections show news footage of West Bank and Gaza bloodshed. Rajesh Bose is delightful as the Palestinian representative, far more worldly and sophisticated than the Norwegians expected. And though he seems to be a devoted family man, his apparent need of betrayal sends the first batch of Israeli negotiators packing, opening the way for Uri Savir (Ben Graney) as a young diplomat with a dash of gangsta in him. He, in turn, is betrayed by his own superiors, who send in the taciturn Joel Singer (Jim Shankman) near the end, to make sense out of the broad generalities the others have slowly worked out.
"But is it funny?" a friend asked me recently, after reading my review of the previous show on the Rep's main-stage, Alabama Story, which she enjoyed very much. I was sure I'd made it clear. But if there's any doubt, yes: Oslo has lots of laughs, at very regular intervals. The other funny thing is, it gives us hope, that by playing on the weakness of men, we might strengthen all mankind.
Oslo, through March 3, 2019, at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Loretto-Hilton building, The Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts, 110 Edgar Rd., St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.repstl.org.
The Cast (in speaking order):
Additional Production Credits: