Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Striking Accord: Tony-Winning 'Oslo' Given a Fine TimeLine Production in Chicago -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a recent play by J.T. Rogers
directed by Nick Bowling
TimeLine Theatre Company
at Broadway Playhouse
Presented by Broadway in Chicago
Thru October 20

In Amadeus, the 1984 film about Mozart adapted by Peter Shaffer from his own play—Shaffer also wrote Equus, which I recently saw for the first time—his patron, Emperor Joseph II, gives a small but condescending critique of one of the maestro’s compositions, saying:
"My dear, young man, don't take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It's quality work. There are simply too many notes, that's all. Cut a few and it will be perfect."
To which Mozart sharply retorts:
“Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?” 
I feel it only fair to share this point of reference in suggesting that J.T. Rogers' Tony-winning 2016 play, Oslo—which is quite astute, enlightening and largely masterful—might have felt even greater to me were about 30 minutes cut from its 2 hour & 45 minute runtime.

Photo credit on all: Brett Beiner
Obviously, Rogers—whose The Overwhelming I also enjoyed several years ago—didn’t think there was any unneeded excess to his script, and in addition to the 2017 Tony for Best Play, it won a slew of other awards.

So who am I to say, and regardless I still highly recommend Oslo, which despite all its honors didn't get funding for a national tour so is being presented in Chicago--under the auspices of Broadway in Chicago--by TimeLine Theatre, long one of the city's best local troupes.

I am delighted for the exposure TimeLine is getting in staging this high-profile work within the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place (rather than in its regular home in part of a church complex on Wellington Avenue).

Though I didn't have time to read a lot of it, it's great that TimeLine is able to maintain its tradition of accompanying shows with informative background information on lobby displays, as well as publishing additional material in its Backstory pamphlet, which supplements the regular show program.

Oslo's focus on international diplomacy--specifically negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leading to peace accords announced in September 1993--reminded me of a play called Blind Date, about the first meeting between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

But Oslo is considerably better than that work in almost all ways, including by focusing on negotiators a step--or several--below Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, PLO Chairman Yassar Arafat and U.S. President Bill Clinton.

The Palestinians are primarily represented by Arafat subordinates Ahmed Qurie (Anish Jethmalani) and Hassan Asfour (Amro Salama), while a rumpled economics professor named Yair Hirschfeld (Ron E. Rains) is initially selected by Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Yossi Belin (Stef Tovar) to negotiate on behalf of Israel, with Uri Savir (Jed Feder) also getting involved. An attorney named Joel Singer (Tom Hickey) later takes a key seat at the table.

All these roles are well played, and under the fine direction of Nick Bowling, Rogers' deeply-researched script incorporates a surprising amount of humor and humanity into the clandestine negotiations that largely take place in Oslo, the capital of Norway.

But the heart of the play--which features a 13-person cast, and that's with some actors playing multiple roles--comes in enlightening the world to the behind the scenes involvement and importance of Norwegian couple Terje Rød-Larsen (an excellent Scott Parkinson) and Mona Juul (Bri Sudia,  terrific again as in TimeLine's A Shayna Maidel and several musicals).

Terje is a professor who runs a think tank/aid organization with the help of Mona--who is also a noted diplomat--and they essentially push for the Israel-PLO summit to happen, initially quite secretly.

There's a lot going on, and its to Rogers' great credit--as well as Bowling and the excellent cast here--that despite the subject matter, it's eminently watchable and far more powerful than ponderous.

Yes, as I opined to open, the play feels long, particularly the first act, where it seemed there could be fewer scenes with the various negotiators involved.

Certainly, heading downtown after a workday in the far north suburbs wasn't ideal for me staying pinpoint sharp throughout, but Oslo did hold my attention, while considerably entertaining and enlightening me.

It is an excellent play that demands being seen.

Perhaps even more if there was just a bit less.

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