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'Oslo' is an entertaining and at times forced call for hope

Los Altos Stage Company's political drama searches for optimism in the 1993 peace process

Before former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin shook hands with former Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Yassir Arafat on the South Lawn of the White House on Sept. 13, 1993, the day of the official signing of the Oslo I Accord, secret meetings between Israeli and PLO officials were orchestrated to negotiate the terms of agreements aimed to eventually end the decades long Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Ahmed Qurie, a PLO official, approached Israeli diplomat Uri Savir in one of the first meetings and, according to the New Yorker, candidly asked, "We are second-rate guerilla fighters. Why are we a threat to you?"

A stunned Savir replied, "Because you want to live in my house."

J.T. Rogers' play "Oslo," currently presented by Los Altos Stage Company, starts months before Savir and Qurie actually met in real life -- the two don't interact until act two -- but it constantly depends on these types of deeply personal and heated dialogue to flesh out the abstractions of geopolitics and make them more tangible.

Instead of portraying a war between two foreign bodies and its countless players, "Oslo" strips the Israeli-Palestinian conflict down to a simple but effective stage of shifting chairs, desk and large white double doors that constantly loom behind the bitter infightings of a few powerful but vulnerable men.

And it captures the rationale Norweigian sociologist Terje Rod-Larsen, depicted by Robert Sean Campbell, used when he helped facilitate clandestine meetings between PLO and Israeli officials with Norway's foreign affairs minister and wife Mona Juul, played by Tanya Marie, who makes her company debut with "Oslo."

"You are trapped in a procedure that is rigid, impersonal and incapable of building trust," the impassioned sociologist shouts. "Establish a second channel ... not grand pronouncements between governments, but intimate discussions between people."

During the nearly three-hour dramatization of the true political saga directed by Los Altos Stage Comany's Executive Director Gary Landis, the couple deftly maneuvers through conflicting cultural beliefs and deeply rooted psychological trauma from years of political persecution in order to get officials from the PLO and Israel to sit in a room for a productive discussion of peace.

But whenever members of the two parties do enter the same space, civility feels as fragile as their masculinity and can only hold together for so long. When Qurie, played by Mohamed Ismail, and Savir, played by Josiah Frampton, begin to review a draft of the accords, it only takes a few lines before one of them starts to blame the other for the carnage that's been inflicted upon their people.

"You have killed our athletes in Munich, murdered our schoolchildren," says Savir right before Qurie reminds him that it's the Israelis who "shoots our children for sport."

Part of that tension is also made palpable with the help of Ismail's towering 6 feet-plus stage presence and booming voice. And, at times, it's humorously released by one of two characters played by Peter Mandel, Ron Pundak, who's a strangely adorable junior economics professor caught in a messy diplomatic crossfire.

But one of the few moments where the sense of urgency for peace talks is truly convincing is in Campbell's interpretation of Larsen. Campbell depicts the sociologist as someone who is overly ambitious but clumsy when actually dealing with sensitive relationships -- whether it's with the negotiators or his wife -- because he's so desperate to get things done. It's seen in his eyes and his movements, which can be uncertain and jittery.

Some knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be helpful for audiences (Marie's character also has a few asides that provide context for who's who), but it's not necessary to see what emotional response Rogers tries to pull out from viewers when his characters tirelessly work to achieve peace amongst people that don't seem to be prepared for it.

It's an admirable, albeit sometimes forced call for optimism. (At one point, Campbell's character makes a direct, cliched request at the audience to look beyond the horizon and search for hope.)

And knowing how the real Oslo Accord failed to establish a peace agreement or a Palestinian state more than a quarter of a century after the ceremonial handshake in front of the White House could have some viewers wondering why they're being asked to be optimistic in a play about the seemingly defunct agreements.

In the first act, Larsen makes a plea to a skeptical Yossi Beilin, Israeli's deputy foreign minister, played by Maya Greenberg in a gender-reversed role, inside a Tandoori restaurant. Larsen can only hope Beilin will agree to negotiate with the PLO as they talk and share a plate of pita bread with hummus.

But Beilin calls Larsen's request a farce "It's bulls--t." He cites years of violent insurrection, hundreds of deaths of men, women and children, topped with U.S. media scrutiny, that has disillusioned the Israeli government towards any substantive action for peace. As he rants, Beilin starts to experience sharp pangs of indigestion.

"I can't give up the idea that suddenly everything will change and my stomach will be my friend," he complains. "So you see I am dreaming of two peace plans."

Many moments like this in "Oslo" -- there's another scene where Savir dismissively says he needs to "take a piss" after a professor asks to be briefed on any details for the negotiation -- remind how the people who can change the course of millions of lives can be so utterly human.

Audiences can search those moments of "Oslo'' and find something to be optimistic about, along with plenty of comic relief, as Rogers suggests that governing bodies are only made up of people susceptible to the same things and so, just like everyone else, can be agreeably dealt with.

But in those same moments, there's a creeping reminder that power can often lie with an undeserving few, all too dangerously flawed.

What: "Oslo."

Where: Bus Barn Stage, 97 Hillview Ave., Los Altos.

When: Through Feb. 16. Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 3 p.m.

Cost: $20-$38.

Info: Los Altos Stage Company.

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