It’s funny the things that we remember from childhood, and what we don’t. I have no concrete memory of learning about the Berlin wall coming down, but granted I was six when that happened. But I somehow have a strong memory of a Monday morning at school when I was in the fifth grade, everyone crowded around a television that the teachers were trying to make work. We sat on the floor, and watched as two foreign men and the new U.S. President (Bill Clinton) spoke, and then signed things. It was not of particular interest to me at the time, but it turns out that this was the signing of the Oslo Accords, which were hopefully heralding peace in the Middle East – the first time that Israelis and Palestinians were able to come to some sort of agreement.
The reason I bring this up is because the Round House Theatre (normally based in Bethesda, but currently hanging out at the Lansburgh) is putting on a production of Oslo, a massively-award-winning play by J.T. Rogers about the process by which a husband and wife team in Norway managed to turn a back-channel negotiation between the PLO and the Israelis into a proper official negotiation for peace between two parties who had previously been unwilling to make this kind of effort. The show won the 2017 Tony for Best Play, the 2017 Drama Desk award for Outstanding Play, and the 2017 New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for Best Play. That’s all the major New York awards that a play can win, and this show won them all.
So needless to say, it’s an incredible show. I will admit up front that when the Boy and I were purchasing these tickets for us to take his father to see the show (and it turned out later, my mother too), I wasn’t particularly excited. Sure, a “political thriller” would be a good option, and it was a story I didn’t know a lot about going in, so I was open to whatever this show wanted to be for me. It turns out, being open to being impressed left me flabbergasted. I’m not sure I’ve seen a show this good in a very long time. In fact, I said immediately after the show ended that it may have been one of the best plays I’ve ever seen. It is that good, and that powerful.
Obviously the topic is a moving one, especially in light of the fact that the peace did not last for long at all. But one could argue that merely having the leadership of these two factions being able to meet and agree at the very least on a way forward was a huge step that they won’t have to overcome in the future. But beyond the Middle East peace process itself, the actors in this piece are terrific. Many of the performers are ones with whom we are very familiar as frequent attendees of DC-based theater – Erin Weaver, Gregory Wooddell, and Kimberly Gilbert are all familiar names and faces. And it turns out that a few of the other actors are ones who have appeared in shows we have seen as well, but since they tend not to take character roles, are more metamorphic in their appearance and disappear into a role completely, explaining why we might not recognize them.
Every actor on stage was phenomenal – particularly Erin Weaver as Norwegian diplomat Mona Juul, and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as lead PLO negotiator Ahmed Qurie. Mona is the story’s narrator, taking us through time from when she met her husband and learned about his early theories of gradualism as a negotiation tool, and through to how they coordinated the first unofficial talks between PLO parties and non-government-affiliated Israelis who were unofficially authorized to begin talking to the PLO. Ebrahimzadeh’s Qurie is a cautious man, who obviously wants to be a part of the negotiation for peace, but who also doesn’t want to give up too much, or give in first. His caution, and journey to love and friendship with the Israelis is very emotional.
Not to mention the fact that the set is stunning. It’s a minimalist sort of set (very Scandinavian, of course!) that has pieces sliding in and out, and has projections on the large blank portions to create the various settings needed for the play. We are able to bounce between Oslo, Israel, the White House, and the Norwegian countryside with the movement of furniture and a few walls with the right projection. It is wonderfully done, and even when there was a slight hiccup and the projection crashed at one moment, the techs were there to fix it right away and the show carried on without even a breath that something had gone wrong.
I feel like I might be overselling this production, but I know I’m not. It’s a really good show. It’s getting terrific reviews from everyone. And it has so much that’s appealing for a certain type of Washingtonian theater-goer: excellent writing, an inside story that isn’t well known in America, realistically high tension that you know turns out well in the end (even if you’re not sure of the exact path that it takes to get there), outstanding performances and terrific production values. There isn’t much not to like. It also doesn’t hurt that the Round House Theatre goes out of its way to give options for discounted tickets, so there really are no excuses not to see this show as someone who enjoys theatre, except for perhaps, not having enough time. But even then – maybe try to squeeze it in?
Details: Oslo, by J.T. Rogers. Produced by the Round House Theatre Company at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St NW, Washington, DC 20004. Through May 19.