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Oslo
by J. T. Rogers
Directed by Steven Woolf
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
February 8, 2019

Kathleen Wise, Jim Poulos Photo by Peter Wochniak Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The latest play at the Rep is a multi-award winning play by J.T. Rogers. Oslo is a fact-based play about diplomacy, essentially. Despite its widespread critical acclaim, this is one of those plays that, to me, sounds a lot less dramatic in description than it actually plays out on stage. It’s a testament to the skill of the playwright that he was able to take a series of secret negotiations over a year and half and craft them into such a riveting, insightful, surprisingly witty drama. The excellent cast at the Rep adds to the dramatic value as well.

This play runs at a little over two and a half hours, and there are three acts, structured in an inventive and ultimately compelling way. At first, it can be a little hard to follow because there are a lot of characters and a lot of talking, but the appeal of the story and the characters soon draw attention. It follows the secret, behind-the-scenes negotiations between Israel and the PLO that eventually resulted in the famous Oslo Accords in 1993, focusing on married Norwegian diplomats Terje Rød-Larsen (Jim Poulos) and Mona Juul (Kathleen Wise), who arranged and facilitated the meetings. The unprecedented negotiations take careful diplomacy, unorthodox methods, and a lot of interpersonal influence, involving Norwegian government officials like Johan Jorgen Holst (Jonathan Gillard Daly), Israeli officials like Yossi Beilin (Jerry Vogel) and “unofficial” negotiators Yair Hirchfeld (John Rensenhouse) and Ron Pundak (Michael James Reed), and official negotiators Uri Savir (Ben Graney) and Joel Singer (Jim Shankman), as well as PLO negotiators Ahmed Qurie (Rajesh Bose) and Hassan Asfour (Amro Salama). The process is slow and careful, with tensions readily apparent, but with the insistent Terje setting up ground rules that encourage socialization outside the negotiating room. It’s a fascinating play on many levels, with the dramatic tension coming mostly from personality conflicts and the urgency of the situation. There’s also a fair amount of humor and wit, along with the charismatic characters and performances.

Director Steven Woolf has paced this play well, with the action getting more and more tense as the proceedings continue. The production values add a lot to the drama, with Michael Ganio’s versatile set and Nathan W. Scheuer’s stunning projections helping to set and maintain the mood of the show. There are also excellent costumes by Dorothy Marshal Inglis, as well as effective lighting by Rob Denton and sound by Fitz Patton.

The technical aspects help to set the stage, but the performances are what carry the weight of this excellent, thoughtful script. The central figures, Terje and Mona, are embodied expertly by Poulos and Wise, who have strong chemistry that make them believable as a married couple, as well as a great deal of energy and determination. Also standing out are the dynamic, charismatic performances of Bose as Ahmed Qurie and Graney as the initially enigmatic Uri Savir. There are also fine performances from the rest of the cast, including Daly, Rensenhouse, Reed, and Michelle Hand in various roles. It’s a superb cast all-around, contributing a great deal to the already riveting story and first-rate script.

Although it took me a few minutes to get into the story, once I did, the long running time of this play didn’t really matter. The structure of Act One especially is particularly clever, and the rest of the play continues the compelling storytelling all the way through until the bittersweet ending that acknowledges history since 1993. The play is a fascinating lesson in history, character development and the careful balancing act that diplomacy can be. It’s an insightful and thoroughly human drama, expertly staged at the Rep.

Rajesh Bose, Jim Shankman, Amro Salama, Ben Graney Photo by Peter Wochniak Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Oslo until March 3, 2019

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