Personal diplomacy makes for riveting drama in Pioneer Theatre’s “Oslo”

Sat Sep 15, 2018 at 2:58 pm
By Ellen Fagg Weist

Kate Middleton and Jeff Talbott in the Pioneer Theatre Company production of J. T. Rogers’ “Oslo.” Photo: BW Productions

In its bold new production of J.T. Rogers’ Oslo, the Pioneer Theatre Company serves up thrilling theatrical moments with age-old enemies facing off in a series of intensely dramatic confrontations.

The company’s season-opening production of the 2017 Tony Award-winning play unfolded Friday night as a political thriller. The action–based upon a true story– details two married Norwegian diplomats and their behind-the-scenes orchestration that led up to the historic 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation.

Rogers’ three-act drama invites the audience into the story through Terje Rød-Larsen (Jeff Talbott) a Norwegian sociologist who stakes his career and reputation on the belief that personal friendships can help enemies make peace. His partner in the effort is his diplomat wife, Mona (Kate Middleton), who serves as a quasi-narrator, directly addressing the audience to explain the complex machinations of the backstory.

But it is in the face-off of the political counterparts that makes Oslo such riveting theater. Ben Cherry is Uri Savir, a swaggering Israeli diplomat with the self-regard of a rock star. Savir repeatedly butts egos with Ahmed Qurie (Demosthenes Chrysan), the thick-necked, proud financial head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Both actors are terrific and wholly compelling as the ancient enemies bully and feint their way through the secret talks.

Savir and Qurie are blunt, unlikely peace negotiators. “In my country, we see you as terrorists and murderers who wish to drive us into the sea,” Savir declares. Qurie retorts: “In my country, we see you as a savage nation whose army shoots our children for sport.”

Karen Azenberg’s direction was most effective in the adroitly paced second act; with the defusing, magical visual of a Norwegian snow scene, this was beautiful, moving stagecraft. Less successful was the expositional first act, where the characters seemed lost in the desert-wide expanse of Pioneer Theatre’s stage. And the shadowy enactments of protests don’t quite convey the urgency of what’s at stake in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Talbott’s Terje (familiar to PTC audiences as the playwright of last season’s i) doesn’t seem completely comfortable in Pioneer’s vast hall, his character seeming to project his lines instead of speaking them. Terje’s blend of ego and self-effacement needs to be more dramatically realized for the audience to be taken in by his dangerous peace-making gestures. Middleton’s Mona seemed more authentic, charming and sly as the negotiations’ measured guide.

Amid the sprawling cast, Joel Reuben Ganz as Israeli gatekeeper Yossi Beilin is a standout, as is Neal Benari as Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres.

One of Rogers’ best attributes is the charm with which he invests even his most complicated characters. (Local audiences know Rogers’ earlier work from productions at Salt Lake Acting Company, where he was a resident playwright in the mid-2000s.) Rogers’ dialogue is richly funny, and he makes compelling use of non-offensive ethnic jokes as he examines recent history through the intimate lens of his characters.

While the play’s language might put off some of the company’s more conservative subscribers,  Pioneer’s opening-night audience responded enthusiastically at the play’s documentary-styled closing.

The themes of Oslo have fresh relevance after this month’s 25th anniversary of what the Oslo Accords produced: an historic handshake between Israeli Prime Minster Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chair Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn.

Yet over the past 25 years, history has shown us that peace deals without follow-up mean little. The world still has much to learn from Rogers’ intimate recounting of an era with a more personal and nuanced approach to making peace.

Oslo runs through September 29.; 801-581-6961.

Ellen Fagg Weist is the former arts editor and theater reviewer of The Salt Lake Tribune. She earned an MFA from the University of Iowa.


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