SALT LAKE CITY — The opener for Pioneer Theatre Company’s season is the award winning 2017 Broadway Play, Oslo, by J. T. Rogers, which is based on the true story of the secret negotiations that lead to the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Directed by Karen Azenberg, the production is a choice that is unique for Utah, and a rare opportunity for Utah audiences to see this work.
The set and lighting, both designed by Daniel Meeker, were simple yet effective. Most of the plot happens within one building in Oslo, where people have traveled from both Israel and the PLO to quietly and discreetly discuss the future of their peoples. For Oslo, it is important for the set to provide a backdrop for the story without distracting from it. Meeker was able to find that balance and maintain it for the almost three hours that the production runs.
With a stellar cast of mainly Equity actors, my expectations for this production were high. Jeff Talbott and Kate Middleton, playing married couple Terje Rød-Larsen and Mona Juul, succeed in having characters who could realistically bring together parties from both sides to discuss the opportunity of peace. Both Talbott and Middleton gave impressive performances, with Middleton also having the task of narration and explanation throughout the night. Middleton was stellar in her ability to remain cool yet committed to the progress of the plot, and there is a moment where she stands up to the men on stage and professes why they need to see past themselves and view the bigger picture. In that moment, she was both firm and gentle, moving yet calm. Talbott played a precisely neutral character, yet sharing the emotional vulnerabilities that are necessary in this type of show.
The performances that stood out, however, were of the four who first sit down to the negotiations: Neal Benari (playing Yair Hirschfeld), Thamer Jendoubi (playing Hassan Asfour), Demosthenes Chrysan (playing Ahmed Qurie), and Max Woertendkye (playing Ron Pundak). I was utterly astonished at how real the tension felt within the theater during the scene when these gentlemen first meet. A line from the script stated that one could feel the hate flow between them, and that moment was well-lived upon the stage. An understanding of history only makes this moment more stirring, as the very thought of these men being in the same room was not only unheard of, it was illegal for both parties. It was an intriguing experience to watch enemies learn to converse and try to become not only civil, but even friends. From the moment of first tension, the task seemed impossible, yet throughout the evening, these men were able to develop the characterization needed to make the plot believable. When Uri Savir (played by Ben Cherry) entered into the talks, the stakes increased and the emotional tension became even stronger. Cherry seemed to bring the show to a deeper level, which gave the production more meaning.
The subject matter of this production is complicated and heated, even today. One thing that Rogers’s script did well to present the story without taking a side, opting instead to let the whole story play out, leaving the audience to digest the information and arrive at their own conclusions. Of course, with any historical drama, literary license has been taken, and it is not clear from merely watching the play that the action on stage reflects the historical record. What was certain, though, was the ability of the actors and Azenberg to recreate a moment where enemies were able to more fully see each other for who they are.
Oslo contains language and themes that are meant for more mature audiences. It is not a production that is meant for sheer entertainment, but rather a production that opens the eyes of the audience to a conflict that has lasted for generations. The final scene shows the whole cast reflecting on events that followed the peace accords, which was a strong reminder that moments, even historical moments, are fleeting and must be followed with more action and understanding if they are to last.