A team of Norwegian diplomats on a secret mission to change the world: J.T. Rogers’ “Oslo” is a work of historical fiction about the real-life negotiations that brought peace — albeit briefly — to the Middle East.
“Even though there was this huge breakthrough, shown by the Oslo Accords, it’s not over,” said Todd Scofield, who plays Johan Jørgen Holst and Finn Grandal in the production. “It’s still ongoing, the conflict. It’s still up in the air.”
Which makes “Oslo,” which won the 2017 Tony Award for best play, particularly intriguing, especially for audiences in the nation’s capital. In fact, the D.C. area debut of “Oslo” happens, literally, in Washington D.C., at The Lansburgh Theatre while the Bethesda headquarters of Round House Theatre (RHT) is being renovated. In all other ways it’s vintage Round House: directed by Ryan Rilette, RHT’s artistic director, and featuring an ensemble cast that’s packed with favorites, like RHT Resident Artist Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Helen Hayes Award winner Erin Weaver — and Scofield, a Kalamazoo, Michigan native who has made D.C. his home.
Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (Ahmed Quire) and Ahmad Kamal (Hassan Asfour) come to the table.
Photo credit: Kaley Etzkorn
He had the first of his seven RHT roles in 2004, in “Tabletop,” and appeared in 2017’s “The Book of Will.” now he plays Johan Jørgen Holst, the Norwegian Foreign Minister who died not long after the Oslo Accords were signed in Washington in 1993.
“It’s about the backstage dealings that led to the famous handshake between (Yasser) Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin with Clinton in between them,” said Scofield. “I was in my early 20s, and I remember thinking, ‘What? An agreement between the Palestinians and Israel? That’s fantastic!’ And this is what led to it.”
The playwright calls his work “historical fiction;” it’s a detailed imagining of just what happened when a team of Norwegian diplomats opened backchannel negotiations to create a new peace process based on the historic Camp David Accords.
“It’s a very straightforward narrative in terms of telling the story,” said Kimberly Gilbert, who plays Marianne Heiberg and Toril Grandal. “These are the events that took place. You judge for yourself whether it was good or bad.
The play’s structure is dynamic, she added, using creative technical effects to depict the events. “Jesse Belsky’s lights, Jared Mezzocchi’s projections, Misha Kachman’s set designs and Matthew Nielson’s sound have a major, equal impact on the storytelling with the actors onstage. We’re all on equal footing in terms of the storytelling.”
Gilbert, who holds a bachelor’s degree in theater from Pennsylvania’s West Chester University, also has a master of fine arts from the Academy for Classical Acting, where she was a member of the program’s first class. Armed with her mother’s advice to “just be happy,” Gilbert — the youngest of nine children — stayed in D.C. and established a career here.
“The desire to entertain was in my DNA, I think,” said Gilbert, who grew up outside Philadelphia in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, doing whatever she could to make her four sisters and four brothers take notice. “They were the coolest, funniest, most talented humans. I’d do anything to get their attention.”
Now she works on getting the audience’s attention, and prioritizes working within an ensemble cast like the one in “Oslo.” For Gilbert, the fact that the peace brokered by the Oslo Accords failed to hold isn’t necessarily the point. “The play asks the question of the audience: ‘Even if it didn’t solve the problem, was it still worth it?’” she said. “An attempt to move forward — even if you take three steps back —t he momentum, in the long term, can push changes forward.”
Scofield thinks the RHT audience is well able to address that question. “We have very astute audiences here in D.C., I have found,” he said. And while he knows there are people out there who are familiar with the Oslo process, he sees “Oslo” as a story that can be enjoyed no matter how much context or background knowledge an audience member brings to the table.
“This is a play about individual people on opposite sides of a big, big problem,” he pointed out. “Yes, there’s lots of background on both sides, but these are people, and you’re introduced to them and get to know them and root for them. You want it to work out.”
Round House Theatre’s production of “Oslo” runs through May 19 at The Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St., NW, Washington, D.C. Performances start at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets — starting at $30 plus $6 service and facility fee, with discounts available to ages 30 and younger, senior citizens, military and veterans (all with ID) — call 240-644-1100 or visit RoundHouseTheatre.org.