Cast of Oslo at Timeline Theatre: Scott Parkinson, Bri Sudia, Anish Jethmalani and Uri Savir (photo by Laura Geotsche).
Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
THE HUMAN TOUCH
Connecting with the tangle of emotions bound up in the historic Oslo Peace Accord is the task for Timeline Theatre's Nick Bolwing when he brings J. T. Roger's hit Broadway play, Oslo, to the stage this fall.
By Oscar Peterson
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From the Autumn 2019 Issue of Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
It’s 1993 and tensions in the Middle-East are at their peak. Norwegian diplomat Mona Juul is charged with the seemingly insurmountable task of getting mortal enemies to a meeting of the minds, facing each other not as political adversaries but as fellow human beings. Through an intricate, unlikely plan hatched by Juul and her husband, social scientist Terje Rød-Larsen, backchannel negotiations and an assemblage of players at an idyllic estate just outside Oslo, Norway, the pair would achieve what some thought impossible: the mutual recognition of two geopolitical foes as partners in a larger negotiation process that held global implications—the first steps toward peace in the Middle East.
Such is the plot for Oslo, the Tony and Drama Desk Award-winning play by J. T. Rogers which recounts the true-life 1990s negotiations that led to the Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Fraught with tension, billowing with drama, Oslo is a witty, fast-paced glimpse behind the veil of decades-old tensions between two polarized global communities and how that veil is by twists and turns pulled back to reveal a shared humanity that would form the basis for negotiations that surprised the world.
The play premiered in the fall of 2016 in a sold-out run at New York’s Lincoln Center and opened on Broadway the following spring. After successful runs in London’s Royal National Theatre and West End, Oslo wracked up a slew of awards in 2017 and now makes its way to Chicago this fall in a highly anticipated production by Timeline Theatre and Broadway in Chicago.
Led by Timeline Theatre associate artistic director Nick Bowling, this fall’s production promises to be a taught, thrill ride into the undercurrent of geopolitical tensions and their evolution through a single common denominator, humanity.
But dramatization of true-life events of such depth and transformation is not always an easy effort. For Bowling, successful conveyance of the emotional tension behind the scenes and the transformation that took place lied squarely in Rogers’ script. “J.T. Rogers wrote an incredible play,” Bowling told me. “Its scale is massive and the story of the Oslo Accords could be incredibly complicated, but his skill as a writer is in distilling huge histories into intimate stories. We did his play Blood and Gifts a few years back, and in that play he took on the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.
“One of the tricks of (Oslo) is that it doesn’t mire the audience down with unnecessary details. It is ultimately about a couple in Norway who are trying to bring together two opposing sides.”
Through humor and no small amount of intrigue, Oslo engages us by giving an intimate look into the humanity of the players involved in these secret negotiations that achieved the impossible in 1993.
Pulling back the veil that brewing tensions creates—particularly those brought to the Oslo negotiations—in a brief three-hour span may be a difficult task, but for Bowling, its not accomplished through theatrical device, it’s done by tapping into the very element Rogers fleshed out in his script, the element that led to the success the Oslo negotiations achieved. Casting a team of actors whose talents for reaching that human element in their characters was key to achieving the impossible on stage in Rogers’ script.
Bowling explained, “What we focus on in the theater is what the character wants: the objective. We often start by not worrying about the veil, but focusing on the paths. These are actions that will hopefully lead each actor toward their objective.” Those paths are fleshed out in this production by the talents and chemistry of the actors Bowling has brought to this project.
Making his Timeline Theatre debut as Terje Larsen is Chicago stage veteran Scott Parkinson. Parkinson has spent years honing his craft on major Chicago stages, including Goodman Theatre, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and Court Theatre, where Bowling cast him as Puck in Shakespeare’s A MidSummer Nights’ Dream. Said Bolwing, “(Parkinson) played Prior in an incredibly well-loved production of Angels In America, directed by David Cromer that played in the Timeline Theatre space before we were tenants. He was a master of acting then and he’s only gotten better.”
Playing Mona Juul for this fall’s production is Chicago actress Bri Sudia, whom Bowling admits is one of his favorite actors. Having carried huge productions like Wonderful Town at The Goodman, Sweeny Todd at the Paramount and A Shayna Maidel at Timeline last season, Bowling is confident Sudia’s work in Oslo will go a long way toward fleshing out an intimate portrayal of one of the single most important players at work in the 1993 Oslo negotiations. “She’s incredible, and I know that her work with Scott will be exceptional,” said Bowling of Sudia’s casting in the upcoming Chicago premiere.
Adding considerably to the chemistry of the Oslo cast will be Timeline Company member Anish Jethmalani as Palestinian leader Ahmed Qurie, and making their Timeline Theatre debuts, Jed Feder as Uri Savir (director-general of the Peres Center for Peace, in Tel Aviv-Jaffa during the time of the Oslo negotiations), and Bernard Balbot as both Professor Ron Pundak of Tel Aviv University, and Jan Egeland (key facilitators during the secret negotiations).
Bowling insists with the right cast of actors in place, you don’t have to manufacture or facilitate the kind of chemistry necessary to reach the cores of the intense set of characters Oslo has. For him, finding a team that is emotionally astute and artistically adept at fleshing out a synergy within the group is his chief responsibility. And if the Jeff Award winning director’s track record is any indication, the strategy is a recipe for success. “I cast smart, emotionally developed actors and then hope they will start by appreciating each other’s skill,” he told me. “It’s an incredible ensemble filled with some of the best actors in the city. I know they will bring the play to life.”
Of course part of bringing Oslo to life in Timeline’s production will be bringing the city of Oslo to Chicago’s Broadway Playhouse. For that task, Bowling has tapped a creative team that reads like a "Who’s Who" of Chicago live theater design. It includes Jeff Award winning designers Jeffrey D. Kmiec (scenic designer), who has designed expansive sets for Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Paramount and Northlight; and Jesse Klug, whose nuanced lighting designs have graced the stages of Goodman Theatre and Steppenwolf; Christine Pascual, who has designed costumes for Chicago productions like Traitor at A Red Orchid Theater and The House on Mango Street at Steppenwolf Theatre; and Jeff Award winning sound designer André Pluess, who has lent his considerable talents to Broadway productions Metamorphoses, I Am My Own Wife and 33 Variations.
Bowling stresses that when it came to creating the world of Oslo, less was certainly more. His goal was crafting a set free of distraction and allowing the audience to be led by Rogers’ nuanced script, which creates the most potent impact in this production. He explained, “We have created a very simple world. It’s essentially a single room that needs to be many rooms. The actors and furniture whiz to and fro between scenes to help create the different worlds, but most of the job is left to the audience’s imagination. The real action of the play is in the language. J.T. is a master of writing brilliant dialogue that is used like knives.”
That said, it was also important for Bowling and his team to create a space uniquely suited to the nuances of Rogers’ script. To that end, they inject softer, more capricious design. “We wanted a feminine space (since our narrator is one of the only women in the play) and we wanted a world that felt very different than the dry warm world of the Middle East,” Bowling explained. “It is an incredibly fluid space that almost feels like we’re underwater in a frozen lake. My hope is that it will feel very cold at first but eventually, as the body acclimates, it becomes a warm place you don’t want to leave.”
But when you do, it’s likely you won’t leave with the ultimate resolution that key figures in the Oslo negotiations sought to achieve. Yet you will, perhaps, have a greater understanding of how, as human beings, we can achieve the kind of harmony we so often say we seek.
Though the Oslo Accords ultimately failed to achieve the goals of Middle Eastern Peace and Palestinian self-rule, they did reveal a pathway to creating the kind of mutual understand necessary to reach peace in our world. And perhaps that is the real point of the play, that for humans to reach a truly peaceful co-existence, a process that ultimately recognizes our mutual humanity must first prevail.Bowling puts it simply, “J.T.’s message is that peace is a process…not a destination.” The Oslo Accords were ultimately not successful in some ways, but they did help move the possibility of peace forward. The potential was there. And its that potential that audiences will uncover in intimate detail when Oslo makes its Chicago premiere this fall.