Oslo: Food and Politics and More
I had hoped to find solace in Oslo, the prize-winning play that inaugurates the new season at Northern Stage. A feel-good, “peace is possible if good people try" sort of experience. If only. It is difficult to watch the efforts of the unofficial delegates from Israel and the PLO at the clandestine meetings in Oslo in 1993, trying to forge something resembling peace, and to know, from a 2018 vantage point, that it may have had no lasting impact. That's the bad news. But keep reading.
The good news is that Oslo is chock-full of other fascinating glimpses into the human psyche, political processes, and social interaction. Here's my list:
1. The virtue of the back channel: Entrenched forms of communication are often constipated, and while they may retain some usefulness (think voting), fresh ways for people to talk with one another to air grievances and/or resolve disputes can be very powerful. Seeing Oslo made me promise myself I would look for back channels at every turn.
2. The importance of the face-to-face: It's a cliché, but emails and even phone calls cannot replace face-to-face interactions. Despite the delegates' living and breathing the Middle East conflict throughout their lives, at the meeting in Oslo, at least one character (from the PLO) stated that it was the first time he had actually met a Jewish individual in person.
3. The power of food: Several years ago, in a cost-cutting measure, my employer discontinued serving coffee and occasional sweets at faculty meetings. I voiced my opinion that it was a damaging move. (It was.) One of the few rules for the Oslo meetings required all participants to share a meal at the end of the day. An unsung (or on occasion well-sung in the play) hero is the character of Toril Grandal (Amanda Rafuse). She is the cook who served the meals over which participants from both sides swooned. Like Anthony Bourdain, among others, she knew that there is no faster way to connect with strangers than to sit with them at the same dinner table.
4. The absence of women: With the rare exception of a wife or two, the cook, and the powerful Mona Juul who, with her husband, engineered the negotiation process, the stage is full of men in suits. Men talking to men, both in and outside of the negotiation room. Would the events at Oslo have been different (better, worse, faster, more or less lasting) if the rooms had been populated by women? Will there ever be an occasion that could help to answer the question?
The cast of Oslo
Seeing Oslo provides an opportunity to consider all of the above and to add to the list of ponderables. Like Disgraced of Northern Stage's past season, this is a play filled with complexity and ambiguity. The acting, as always, is superb, and the cast contains some Northern Stage regulars who have wowed audiences in other productions: Eric Bunge, Susan Haefner, David Mason. Among the most affecting scenes are those that detail the evolving relationship between the gentlemanly Ahmed Qurie (Tom Mardirosian) and the boorish Uri Savir (Matthew Cohn). The set is sparse and makes good use of projected images to look at the world beyond the rooms at the secluded Oslo hotel. One quibble: several actors play more than one role, which can be confusing, so keep a sharp eye. And gratitude for the character of Mona Juul, and Susan Haefner's exquisite diction, in her direct addresses to the audiience.
Susan Haefner, David Mason
Oslo is playing at Northern Stage in White River Junction through October 21. For further information and to purchase tickets, go to the Northern Stage website.
Rabin, Clinton, and Arafat: the historic handshake.
(Photo directly above is in the public domain. All cast photos by Kata Sasvari, courtesy of Northern Stage. Photo, top: Max Samuels, Matthew Cohn, Todd Cerveris, Tom Mardirosian)
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