Review: Oslo (Studio 180 Theatre production, presented by David Mirvish)

Omar Alex Khan, Sanjay Talwar, Alex Poch-Goldin, Jonas Chernick & Marla McLeanin the Studio 180 Theatre production of OSLO

Exciting negotiations take centre stage in Oslo, playing in Toronto

Oslo – a Studio 180 Theatre production playing at the CAA Theatre as part of the Off-Mirvish Season – is remarkable theatre.

Who would expect that a play about peace negotiations would be so thrilling, engaging, and witty, that almost three hours would pass in what feels like no time?

This is a big play on many levels, and director Joel Greenberg gives us a big, exciting production. It always surprises me to see a contemporary play with a large cast; there are 13 cast members playing 17 characters.

It runs for 2 hours and 45 minutes, including intermission – also unusual for a contemporary play. As the plot unfolds, there is lots of room for character development. It all happens through a subject still very relevant despite it being a historical piece.

J.T. Rogers’ Oslo explores the negotiations in 1993 between the Israelis and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and led to the Oslo Accords which were signed on September 13, 1993, at the White House. They were unconventional, highly secret, and, in the beginning, completely unofficial. They took place over a period of about nine months in an isolated chateau 30 miles south of Oslo.

They were initiated by a Norwegian couple, Terje Rod-Larsen (Blair Williams) and his wife, Mona Juul (Marla McLean). Juul was a senior official in the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, and Larsen was Director of the Fafo Institute for Applied Social Sciences. Larsen developed a model for negotiating called Gradualism which relies on the personal rather than the organizational and he believes it will work in the Middle East situation.

As unlikely as it sounds he and Juul set up a back channel for the first meeting. It is between PLO representatives Ahmed Qurie (Sanjay Talwar), Finance Minister for the PLO, and Hassan Asfour (Omar Alex Khan), Official PLO liaison with Palestinian Delegation at multilateral US-sponsored talks, and the Israeli representative Yair Hirschfeld (Amitai Kedar) Senior Professor of Economics at the University of Haifa.

There’s a lovely scene that demonstrates the distance the two sides have to travel to find common ground. When Qurie and Hirschfeld meet they stand face to face on opposite sides of a large room and slowly move toward each other. Hirschfeld is very conscious that he should not offer his hand to be shaken first, so he tells quick little stories with lots of hand movement signaling that his hand is available for shaking.

Against the odds the meeting accomplishes something, and the participants decide on another meeting, and so it goes with the Israelis sending Uri Savir (Jonas Chernick), Director General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, as the negotiator and slowly coming closer to being officially involved. When Joel Singer (Alex Poch-Goldin), Legal Advisor to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, joins him at the negotiating table the talks – known as the Oslo Channel – become the official negotiations although they are still secret.

The actors are all marvelous, so much talent in one place. I know that I’m supposed to feel that the characters on stage are actually real, not actors, but it doesn’t always happen. It happened with this cast, amazing when you think of how big it is. There were a few performances that I particularly loved.

McLean as Juul is the epitome of charming determination. Calm and collected she runs interference, interprets what is said into what is meant, keeps her husband from overstepping, and talks to the audience to explain what’s happening or to make an aside.

Williams as Larsen is cool on the surface. Both he and Juul are committed to the peace negotiations succeeding. There’s a big part of Larsen’s desire that’s ego, and he has a tendency to strut around and try and put himself in the middle of things. A look or quick word from Juul usually pulls him back.

I loved the Qurie character played by Talwar. In the beginning, he’s nervous and covers it with bluster but as time passes he loses the bluster and relaxes into a sweet, funny man with a hair-trigger temper. Of the negotiators, he’s the one that seems to be most emotionally invested in a positive outcome.

I said earlier that this is a big play. Ken Mackenzie’s set is big, in keeping with the play and with what I’d expect from a salon in a Norwegian Chateau. We only see the back wall but it tall so we know the ceilings are high. The wall is painted a bluish lavender shade that changes with the light and is decorated with a chair rail and with box-shadow trim on the top half. It’s very Scandinavian, you’ve probably seen this wall on a much smaller scale at IKEA. About halfway across the wall, there are double doors that lead to the negotiating room.

It also serves as various other locations and those scenes are set by Cameron Davis’s projections on to the wall. I think my favourite was the White House. The projections were enhanced by Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound design which was very real, in keeping with the play, and by Kimberly Purtell’s lighting. It was that lighting that made the wall of the set change colour.

My friend Patricia and I loved Oslo. I’m sure a lot of people leaving the theatre were saying “Wow! I never thought I’d love a play based on peace treaty negations, but that was terrific.” We certainly were.

I loved that it was funny even though the subject is serious. I loved that it was true and that the characters were playing real people. I loved that it was neutral, it didn’t take sides – other than a couple of digs at the Americans. And, of course, that it was such a marvelous theatrical experience. Patricia and I both highly recommend it. If you’re a customer of the Bank of Montreal, check this link.

Details:

  • Oslo is playing until March 3 at the CAA Theatre (651 Yonge St)
  • Performances times are Tuesday to Saturday 7:30PM
    Wednesday, Saturday, & Sunday 1:30PM
  • Tickets prices range from $39 to $99
  • Tickets are available online, by phone at 416-872-1212/1-800-461-3333 and at the box office

Photo of Omar Alex Khan, Sanjay Talwar, Alex Poch-Goldin, Jonas Chernick & Marla McLean in by Cylla von Tiedemann. 

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