Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Tag: Israel

Review | Oslo | By J. T. Rogers | Directed by Bartlett Sher | Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center

… at the gates of war … 

No conflicts seem more stubbornly unsolvable in modern politics and history than the hostilities between Israelis and Arabs.   How fascinating that there were, in fact, secret negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, enabled by idealistic,  peace-seeking Norwegians, that resulted in a signed agreement in 1993, the first of the Oslo accords.   Oslo tells the that story in such a way that the audience is caught up in the suspense of high stakes history.

We learn early on about two Israeli academics whose research demonstrates that peace between the Israeli and Palestinians wouldn’t just mitigate violence but would benefit both sides economically.  With these studies as a starting point, Norwegians in their country’s foreign service, convinced that giving representatives of the opposing sides the opportunity to know one another personally will enable cooperation, invite representatives of the Israeli government and the PLO to meet secretly in Oslo.

The Norwegians provide a place for talks and human comforts, good drink and food — Norwegian pancakes play a large role in drawing together these diplomatic representatives on a personal, and progressively warmer level.  The diplomats become friends while not “giving in” to one another’s political demands. There’s give and take: they make some compromises but hold their ground on the non-negotiable issues.

As progress toward an agreement is made, diplomats at even higher levels arrive to hammer out the make-or-break details.   The Americans become involved toward the end and – it’s history — the signing of the Oslo Accord took place in September 1993, with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signing for Israel and Yasir Arafat signing for the PLO, the “first-ever peace deal between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization,” as the playwright writes in his program Note. In a famous photograph, dramatized in this play, Rabin and Arafat shake hands in the Rose Garden of the White House, in the presence of President Bill Clinton.

Knowing the satisfactory, even thrilling ending — which tragically dissipated later, but that’s another part of  history — makes all the more interesting the ins-and-outs and progress and setbacks of the negotiations, through which, ultimately, the PLO agreed to recognize Israel’s right to exist and Israel recognized the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinians.

The characters, in representing historical figures, sometime seem like mouthpieces for their points of view rather than coming to life in their own terms.   Two actors, Anthony Azizi as the dominant PLO representative and Michal Aronov for the Israelis, bring charisma and an enlivening free-wheeling body language to their roles which go far to keep the play from seeming too talky-talky.

The two Norwegians most involved in the success of the negotiations are the most fully drawn as characters but, in terms of what the play’s about, they’re peripheral, so their emotional journeys don’t strengthen the sense of human drama as much as if they were more central.  Oslo is occasionally engaging emotionally, but it’s always interesting as the ideas and interplay, underlined by the life and death importance of a good solution, keep our minds engaged.   You have the sense throughout of learning something you really want to know, and of being glad the author has made that a stimulating event.

Oslo plays at the Vivian Beaumont theater in Manhattan’s Lincoln Center through June 18, 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.

Review | The Band’s Visit | Music & Lyrics by David Yazbek | Book by Itamar Moses | Atlantic Theater Company

…. cultural ambassadors …

A travel weary Egyptian ceremonial police band on their way to play a concert in the Israeli city of Petah Tikva get off the bus by mistake at the small town of Bet Hatikva (you can see how that mistake can be made). There won’t be another bus until morning.  Thank heavens for the mistake – or we wouldn’t have this wonderful musical!

The inhabitants of this relative cultural backwater are edgy and cautious about their unexpected visitors but ultimately do what decent humans do:  they take them in for the night.  And that’s what this show is about:  being human, in the better senses of the word.

Language and cultural barriers are bridged in the brief time the Egyptians are marooned in Bet Hatikva.  With plenty of hesitation and resistance on both sides, conversation begins to flow.  Recognition, understanding, true wit, and music flower.

And love.  The beautiful central love story involves Dina owner of the local café, a dusty oasis in the desert, and Tewfiq, the Conductor of the Egyptian Band.  Dina’s hospitality is grudging on the surface but never in doubt, and that’s the kind of woman she is:  gritty and vulnerable.  How fascinating to watch the gorgeous Katrina Lenk in the role of in the role of Dina allure Tewfiq, played with perfect uptight military correctness by Tony Shalhoub.

But like these, all the characters in The Band’s Visit are humanly complex – even the small parts convey fully rounded personalities.  The acting, singing, dancing, and instrumental playing are in all ways perfect, intelligent and exciting.

The music – and there are fourteen musical numbers — has a thrilling, seductive near-eastern tonality and the lyrics are full of originality and wit.  There’s a lot to laugh at and much that is bitter-sweet in the songs and in the unrolling of the characters’ stories.  This is a “you couldn’t want more” kind of show.  But dominating the whole is the nuanced acting, full-throated singing and smart, wise beauty of Katrina Lenk’s Dina.

A particularly enchanting interlude finds Dina and Tewfiq on a park bench:  Tewfiq, encouraged by Dina, sings a profound and introspective song in Arabic as Dina, in a surreal touch, dances around him,  her arms moving with independent grace, as she sings the questions in her mind, wondering what’ s behind the stern, sad mask of the man who so draws her to him.

The set is as perfect as everything else, conjuring up a small town bus station, Dina’s café with its faded sign, a roller skating rink with colored lights (a key aspect of Bet Hatikva night life), and that miraculous park bench — with movement between scenes achieved with deceptive simplicity.  A stage floor with a rolling panel has never been set to better use.

The show is set a decade or so ago, when Egyptian-Israeli cultural exchanges were in play, and the story is based on an incident that really happened.  And so nostalgia meets with what-if in as bittersweet a romance as that between Dina and Tewfiq.  The Band’s finale persuades that music – perhaps even more than love – is the universal language.

The Band’s Visit is based on a screen play by Eran Kolirin, and is directed by David Cromer.  It plays at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater in Manhattan’s Chelsea district in an extended run through January 8, 2017.  For more information and tickets, click here.

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