I had only dim memories of the 1993 agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis, which had been secretly arranged by a Norwegian couple, who had spent from April 1992 until September of the following year coercing, negotiating, plotting and planning to bring this agreement to life. They were finally able to enjoy the actual signing of it, even though its future was bleak. Within a year, the bitter resentments of each side for the other returned, and to this day peace between the two factions has been impossible to achieve.
The Norwegians, Terje Rǿd Larsen and his wife Mona Juul, became interested in this cause when she was serving as the Norwegian diplomat in Cairo and he took leave of his work as a sociologist in Norway so they both could travel from Egypt to Israel to Gaza to Jerusalem. While living in Cairo, they learned much of the living conditions of the Palestinians from Yasser Arafat’s brother Fathi, and Ms. Juul had access to the American led peace process that began in Washington in 1991. She and Larsen were the only ones able to bring real Israelis and the PLO (representing the Palestinians) together for talks – provided they were kept secret.
The need for secrecy and the dangers inherent in a leak are fully probed in what became writer J.T.Rogers’ play Oslo. Rogers was able to convince the Norwegian couple that there was indeed material in their story for a play; the results are this very complex piece that runs three hours and features 14 actors who play some 22 roles. It had excellent notices off-Broadway at the smaller Mitzi Newhouse Theatre in Lincoln Center from which it moved to its current home at the larger Vivian Beaumont, just upstairs from the Newhouse.
The entire off-Broadway cast, headed by Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays, has moved with it. The reviews, again, were mostly favorable and it’s with deep regret, because of the dedication that’s obviously been lavished on it, that I have to report in the minority. I learned a lot by seeing it, but as a theatre work I found it cumbersome and interesting only as a history lesson. Bartlett Sher, who has brought renewed life to so many revivals at Lincoln Center, (The King and I, Awake and Sing, The Light in the Piazza) has chosen in this instance to strip the vast Beaumont stage of scenery except for the occasional table, chair, chandelier, and enormous backgrounds of newsreel shots depicting the real events that are talked about in the play.
The stage is high, wide and somewhat barren which forces the actors, playing advocates from both sides of the Israeli-Palestine argument into shouting matches. Speeches that would effectively end with passionate outbursts, now begin with them and remain at fever pitch throughout often making them unintelligible. When screeched they also turn colorful characters into speech makers, stick figures who slowly (very slowly) begin to listen to each other long enough to inch forward to put together a document that all can sign. Unfortunately, last minute changes manage to weaken its impact even from the beginning of its role as a peace making device. Within a year, the stone throwing and the bullets are back, and here we are today, frustrated that peace in the area remains unattainable.
Mr. Mays and Ms. Ehle lead with authority and even charm. They bring to the Norwegian couple maturity and an attractive sense of balance which seems to be currently lacking in almost everyone else on stage. It is so difficult to keep all the positions clear that the management thoughtfully supplied a supplementary description of the cast of characters so that we can differentiate the Norwegians between the foreign minister , the deputy foreign minister, the Official in the foreign ministry, the Director and the Executive of the Fato Institute for Applied Social Sciences, the State officer and the Senior officer with the Police Intelligence Service. The Israelis and the Palestinians have equally ornately titled spokesmen, and as each actor is required to color his speech with an accent, I make my point that I often did not realize who was fighting for what cause.
Of course under Director Bartlett Sher’s excellent guidance, the actors are vivid and fine. If set designer Michael Yeargan’s bits and pieces, those that are carried and wheeled on or elevated up were assembled, this would be a lavish production indeed. With the many locations required by the text in “Oslo, Norway, and other locations around the world”, Mr. Yeargan at least gives us glimpses of those locations. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are limited to one apiece for each actor for there simply isn’t time for any onstage changes. As a result Ms. Ehle’s one suit has to clothe her for the many months that the play covers. It’s not a play about costumes though; it’s one about arguments, and both sides make their points again and again. The result: it would seem these two nations were not meant to harmoniously inhabit the same land. You will learn most of the facts involved, but I for one felt I was more in a classroom than in a theater.
As it slowly played itself out, Oslo reminded me of a British import on a contemporary subject, the play Enron, which also employed a large cast and kept signaling to us a message that what we were watching was important, and it didn’t involve us emotionally, so it failed to run over here. From my point of view, that’s what will happen to Oslo, though I may find myself out of fashion on this one.
But again I must comment that Bartlett Sher’s direction, which I have so admired so often in the past, in this instance has his actors moving about constantly, walking from stage left to stage right, and even round in circles. The only reason I could conclude is that he wanted them to be heard by the entire house, and because the Beaumont has a large thrust stage, there was little conversation in the course of the performance; there was a great deal of furniture shifting, smoothly by elevation from the basement and often by the actors themselves who entered pushing everything from serving tables to sofas to snack bars.
Running Time: Two hours and 55 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
From PlayPenn to Lincoln Center: A Conversation about ‘Oslo’ with Paul Meshejian and J.T. Rogers, by Deb Miller.