Local Arts

Intimate staging of ‘Oslo’ gives theatergoers a seat at the peace-negotiating table

Jackson Zerkle (left) and Robert Coppel (right) play Israelis Uri Savir and Yossi Beilin in “Oslo.” Paige Johnston Thomas is directing the Tony Award-winning play for Three Bone Theatre in Charlotte. It opens May 23 at Spirit Square.
Jackson Zerkle (left) and Robert Coppel (right) play Israelis Uri Savir and Yossi Beilin in “Oslo.” Paige Johnston Thomas is directing the Tony Award-winning play for Three Bone Theatre in Charlotte. It opens May 23 at Spirit Square. Ramsey Lyric

Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin shared the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating peace between their nations. Within six years, Egyptian extremists assassinated Sadat, and Begin was no longer prime minister of Israel.

In 1994, Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres shared the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating peace and mutual recognition between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel. Within six years, an Israeli extremist assassinated Rabin, and Arafat was marginalized as a political figurehead.

In the Middle East, dreams of peace seem inextricably bound up with private bullets and public shame: Begin left office soon after the assassination of Lebanese president Bachir Gemayel, who seemed likely to sign an accord with Israel.

So it would be easy to contemplate seven decades of Arab-Israeli relations and despair, but J.T. Rogers asks us not to.

A character at the end of his Tony Award-winning “Oslo” begs us to look not at where we are now but how far we’ve come. He contemplates the 1993 peace accords like King Arthur musing at the end of “Camelot:” For one, brief, shining and perhaps unrecoverable moment, a glorious thing occurred.

Three Bone Theatre stages the play’s regional premiere in Duke Energy Theater, whose small size proves a virtue: We’re almost literally in the Norwegian room where it happens, next to the characters. Director Paige Johnston Thomas keeps the action moving forward smoothly without burying us in imagery or information; not once does the word-packed script feel repetitive or obscure.

Thomas understands that “Oslo” is a balancing act between humor and solemnity, between the fiery rhetoric of the Palestinian negotiators and the Machiavellian calm of the Israelis, between world-defining events and witty confidences shared with the audience by a narrator, Norwegian organizer Mona Juul (the excellent Tonya Bludsworth).

The play has no villains, except for unseen American diplomats whose blundering all three nations condemn.

We understand how fear, rage and defensiveness shaped people on both sides of the table. Rogers asks us to believe that personal negotiations, especially conducted through a back channel like this, let participants find common ground more easily than official wrangling in full view of the media.

Whether or not things really happened this way — and you should rarely take history lessons from Hollywood or Broadway — what matters is that we believe they could have.

Twelve of the 15 actors make Three Bone debuts. Even the smallest parts, such as surprisingly sharp bodyguards played by Keith Logan and Cory Bragg, have been cast with care. Vic Sayegh and Mahbod Naimi strike sparks as the Palestinian pair; Scott Tynes-Miller and Jackson Zerkle fence nimbly with them as Israeli representatives.

Shawn Halliday stands out as Terje Rød-Larsen, the Norwegian who initiates this audacious project and whose amiable duplicity greases the wheels of politics time after time.

The character gets shoved out of the process at last, but Larsen may have had the happiest life in reality: He has spent most of the quarter-century since the Oslo Accords working for the United Nations and International Peace Institute. When you’re not prominently featured in newspapers or on TV, nobody wants to shoot you or hound you out of a job.

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.

‘Oslo’

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through June 1.

WHERE: Duke Energy Theater, Spirit Square, 345 N. College St.

TICKETS: $22 in advance, $28 at the door. RUNNING TIME: 175 minutes, including one intermission.

DETAILS: 704-372-1000 or blumenthalarts.org.

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