Rep’s absorbing ‘Oslo’ offers insights into history

Rajesh Bose and Ben Graney in ‘Oslo’ at The Repertory Theater of St. Louis. Photo: Peter Wochniak.


How much do you know about the War of the Roses, the 15th-century struggle for the English throne?

You’re not an expert? No problem. You can still enjoy a rousing production of Shakespeare’s “Richard III.”

In the same vein, you can enjoy a new production of “Oslo” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis without being an authority on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Oslo,” J.T. Rogers’ Tony-winning drama making its St. Louis debut under the direction of Steven Woolf, strives to be scrupulously even-handed in its depiction of the Norwegian back channels that led to the Oslo Accords of 1993.

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But the theater is rarely the place to learn history. Is that right? Is that wrong? Who knows? It’s theater, not history. All that matters at the Rep is how it plays out onstage, which may be better than how it played out in reality.

As everybody knows, those accords did not bring peace. Today, some might even say that they were pointless.

But Rogers is not among them. In his drama — lively and absorbing, with surprisingly comic notes — the secret talks stand paramount for their hopeful attitude and their practical approach to seemingly intractable problems. 

Hope is the defining attitude of the married Norwegian diplomats who arrange the whole thing. Well-placed enough to set up the meetings but low-level enough to do so quietly, Mona Juul (Kathleen Wise) and her husband, Terje Rod-Larsen (Jim Poulos), must not only deal with great issues but resolve a myriad of tiny details. 

When Rod-Larsen tells the cook not to serve pork to the Jews and Muslims coming to Oslo, Rogers reminds us that tiny courtesies, and their lapses, can have world-shaking consequences. Shakespeare’s warring Plantagenets might well have understood.

Rogers’ faith in reason and courtesy — both presented as desirable alternatives to stubborn, impassioned argument — finds its match in Woolf’s impeccable production. 

The versatile, wide-open stage set designed by Michael Ganio and lighted by Rob Denton to accommodate historic videos, effortlessly shifts between locales in Norway and elsewhere; the costumes, by Dorothy Marshall Englis, are apt; the big cast, with several actors in double roles, includes quite a few veterans of Rep shows past. They know this stage and this audience.

The leading roles go to two stars of the 2017-18 season, when Poulos played the title role in “Hamlet” and Wise played the clever, sympathetic teacher in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” As the Norwegian diplomats, they smoothly dance past questions of European authority onto the shakier ground of the Middle East. 

The marriage grounds the drama in a stable relationship, familiar to all. At one point, the two of them lift the receivers on phones that are next to each other so they can each listen in on an important call. 

In that small, quick moment, Wolff distills the whole production: an intimate relationship rooted in trust, the international relationships that raise sky-high stakes. Put it all together, and the result is a gripping drama with a surprisingly intimate vibe. 

The cast also boasts fine work from Michelle Hand,  Jonathan Gillard Daly, Jerry Vogel, John Rensenhouse, Michael James Reed, Amro Salama, Jeffrey Cummings and Jim Shankman. Ben Graney shines as young, highly placed Israeli diplomat, so volatile in temperament that we don’t know how far to trust him. But then, how far should we trust the secretive, highly placed PLO negotiator played by Rajesh Bose with imposing formality?

Or is each man’s style a deliberate choice, selected for the occasion? The Norwegians probably don’t know that any better than we do. But Poulos and Wise reveal what seems to be honesty, and the play encourages us to trust them. 

Why is that? Because, as neutral parties, they aren’t really involved? Or because, as neutral parties, they can afford the generosity of hope? It’s an intriguing puzzle.

This is the last play that Wolff offers St. Louis as the Rep’s artistic director; he retires at the end of the season. “Oslo” makes a great choice, one that is not only new but that reflects two of Woolf’s favorite theatrical concerns.

He’s always loved directing plays that address big issues (“The Life of Galileo,” “Copenhagen”) and he’s always loved directing plays so intimate that they seem to glide directly from the characters’ hearts into ours (“Betrayal,” “Humble Boy”). 

After 32 years leading the Rep, he deserves this fitting coda to a career that brought St. Louis countless hours of art and beauty and joy.