By Karen Isaacs
In September 1993, an event occurred in the White House Rose Garden that gave the world hope for a Middle East peace: it was the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and the PLO. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Chairman Yasser Arafat were photographed shaking hands and later the two shared the Nobel Peace Prize. President Clinton looked on.
The back story that led to that historic occasion is the subject of the new play Oslo at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater.
Playwright J. T. Rogers makes it very clear in his notes that this is not intended to be an absolutely accurate portrayal of the “back channel” negotiations that occurred in Oslo. He admits that locations and chronology has been changed and compressed. He has removed some characters and as he says “some of those who remain have been assigned different roles than their actual counterparts…the words they say are mine.”
But accepting that this is not a documentary, it is still a compelling though long (about three hours) drama. At times it reminded me of Lee Blessing’s A Walk in the Woods, another play about unconventional diplomatic negotiations. I saw the play first last August when it was produced at Lincoln Center’s smaller theater. The response was so enthusiastic it reopened this March in the larger Beaumont Theater. I was eager to see this play again.
For while the signing of the accords was at the White House, the US had very little to do with the entire process. That was the doing of Norwegian diplomats and Terje Rod-Larsen, director of the Fafo Institute and the husband of an official in the foreign ministry. It was his theory that for negotiations to be successful, rather than put everything on the table at once, the two parties should start with one issue and when that is resolved, go on to the next. He also believed that personal relationships are a necessity for success.
Some research assured me that Larsen, was indeed head of the Institute which focused on Labour and Social Research as well as Applied International Studies. He had a PhD in sociology.
At the end of 1992, two unofficial representatives of the Israeli government met with Ahmed Quiri, finance minister of the PLO and Hassan Asfour at a manor house outside of Oslo. Larsen insisted that the four men meet and talk alone; in the evenings he expected them to join him and his wife, Mona, over food, drink and non-business talk of families and backgrounds mixed with humor.
It was an auspicious start. The two Israelis, economists, had no authority but were reporting to the deputy foreign minister who had sent them on his own imitative. The PLO delegates had more authority and standing, but were angry and skeptical.
Over the course of months and months of meetings, the four men began not only to establish personal relationships but to hammer out an initial draft of an understanding that dealt with such issues as Jericho and the Gaza Strip.
As Mona states early in the play, it took nine months. The movement was in fits and starts. The issues were enormous. The PLO representatives wanted the Israeli negotiators to be government officials; finally that happened when Uri Savir, director-general of the foreign ministry joined the talks.
In the play, senior Norwegian officials were also in the dark about this effort for months; when the foreign minister Johan Jorgen Holst learns of the act ivies of Larsen and Mona, he is not necessarily thrilled. It is dangerous effort and could alienate the US.
Praises to director Bartlett Sher and the entire cast. Sher and his cast not only keep the pace moving and the tension building – even though you know from the outset that the agreement was reached – but they mine the humor that is necessary to keep this from being dull. His entire production team has worked in concert to fulfill his vision.
The cast returned to this play after a hiatus; their performances have deepened and sharpened. If each was good the when I saw last August, they are even better now. Director Bartlett Sher has also adjusted his staging to the larger playing space without losing either intimacy or pace.
Particular praise must be given to dialect coach Elizabeth Smith – she and the cast maintain a variety of accents – primarily Norwegian, Arab and Israeli – while remaining understandable at all times. The accents never become stereotypical but always sound authentic.
Let us heap praises on the cast. Jefferson Mays is one of my favorite actors and again as Larsen he turns in marvelous performance. Not only with the accent but the depths of the character from his certainties to his ego to his doubt. Jennifer Ehle matches his as his wife, Mona. She is steady, calming and truly diplomatic. Michael Aronov is fantastic as the Uri Savir who takes over the negotiations for the Israeli government. Dariush Kashani as Hassam and AnthonyAzizi Quiri are also outstanding. In fact, there is no one in the cast that can be faulted. Each actor whether playing one role or more, creates fully rounded characters that you know and relate to.
Oslo is a play that is well worth seeing. In fact, it is worth seeing twice.
For tickets visit Lincoln Center.
By Karen Isaacs
Fiddler on the Roof is such a classic musical that is done in so many places by so many groups that it is hard to get excited about yet another production; even one directed by Bartlett Sher and starring Danny Burstein.
But after seeing this production at the Broadway Theater, I am excited. It is a marvelous production that moved me more than many productions I’ve seen – even the excellent production directed by Rob Ruggiero at Goodspeed a few years ago. I thought that set a high standard, but this production easily out does it.
You may not have heard of Danny Burstein who plays Tevye, but you should have. He is one of those consummate Broadway performers who doesn’t have a recognizable name but if you are a New York theater aficionado, you have seen him give memorable performances time after time after time. He has played Herr Schultz in Cabaret, Buddy in Follies, Luther Billis in South Pacific and Adolpho in The Drowsy Chaperone. That doesn’t include his work in straight plays from Chekhov to A.R. Gurney to Lanford Wilson.
He is joined by an overall excellent cast.
Since, almost everyone has seen Fiddler, do I really need to go into detail about the story of the milkman Tevye living in a small village (Anatevka) in Czarist Russia, his wife and his five daughters, three of whom find husbands before the musical ends? He is an everyman. He is wise beyond his education, and though deeply tied to tradition and his Jewish faith, also willing to change with the times.
Sher has framed this piece in modern times. It may have been to help modern audiences get into the story or to show its relevance; after all TV shows about finding your roots get large audiences. So as the show begins we see a wooden sign that says “Anatevka” and then a bearded man in a red winter jacket enters. He is carrying a book and reading what turns out to be the story by Sholem Aleichem. He walks to the front of the stage, takes off his jacket and he is Tevye as he begins “Tradition.” As he talks and sings, we see the fiddler on the roof and the house slowly rises in the background. Soon he is joined by the rest of the cast.
From there the story begins; we always realize this is a theatrical production – but that doesn’t take away from the power of the show. The cast members wheel on and off trees to help set the scene.
It is the performances that make this production special.
Let’s start with Burstein. His Tevye is worn out at times but not old; he is still a vital man who has optimism for the future. Yet you see his yearning for and understanding emotional connections. It makes the song “Do You Love Me?” even more touching. You see him struggle with the new ideas that his daughters force him to accept; that he is willing to move away from tradition to more modern ideas reflects his awareness of the world around him. Often, Tevye is played by an actor who is more an actor than a musician or such a major star that the show loses its balance. Burstein is an accomplished singer as his many musical credits attest. So his musicality adds to this characterization.
Playing his wife, Golda, Jesssica Hecht gives a nuanced performance though her voice cannot compare with Burstein’s. But the role has minimal musical numbers and therefore, her limited vocal experience doesn’t harm the performance.
As the three older daughters who all break tradition in their choices of husbands, Alexandra Silber as Tzeitel, Samantha Massell as Hodel and Melanie Moore as Chava, each mines the characters for the core elements. All of them have both the acting and singing talents to make these characters come alive which they demonstrate right from the beginning in “Matchmaker, Matchmaker.” The scene (and song “Far From the Home I Love”) where Hodel says goodbye to her father as she leaves to join her husband in Siberia is touching.
As the three suitors (and later husbands), Motel, the tailor as played by Adam Kantor combines the acting and singing requirements most effectively. I could quibble that he plays Motel as too afraid of speaking to Tevye, always cowering. But that is a minor quibble.
Ben Rappaport plays Perchik, the radical student who arrives in the village and woos Hodel. His acting is fine, but he does not have the vocal chops to make the most of “Now I Have Everything”.
Nick Rehberger is Fyedka, the young Russian (and Christian) soldier with whom Chava falls in love with. It would have been good to see a little more depth in the characterization though his is a more minor character.
Alix Korey gives us a fine Yente and Adam Dannheisser is effective as Lazar Wolf, though it is not the best performance of that role I’ve seen.
The costumes by Catherine Zuber remind us that we are watching a performance; they seem too varied for the poor people living in Anatevka, especially the wedding dress for Hodel.
Michael Yeargen’s set is fluid and flexible. The opening is very effective.
One question that always arises is the choreography: Jerome Robbin’s choreography is so iconic in parts (as also happened with West Side Story) that even when it is new, it seems not. Hofesh Shecter has taken inspiration from the Robbins work – in fact, in the program it says that the entire production is “inspired by the work of Jerome Robbins.” But he has created his own choreography. Of course, he has kept the iconic hat dance in the wedding scene.
Sher also has paid homage to some of Robbins staging, particularly in the next to last scene as the villages depart Anatevka for an uncertain future. As in the original they go around in a circle carrying their belongings. But then he brings us back to the present.
A final quibble about this production: the curtain call does not give Burstein a proper “moment.” He comes out last but then instead of a second bow – or another bow by the principals – the cast goes into a closing dance. It deprives him of the standing ovation he richly deserves.
This Fiddler on the Roof will send you from the theater both thoughtful and filled with warmth.
It is at the Broadway Theater, 1681 Broadway (between 52nd and 53rd St.). Tickets are available from Telecharge.
By Karen Isaacs
The opening of Lincoln Center’s revival of The King and I is spectacular. After listening to the lush overture played by a large orchestra — a rarity in today’s Broadway environment, a ship makes its way slowly onto the stage. As the ship moves forward, the stage also moves covering the orchestra until the ship is docked almost in the laps of the front row patrons.
From the ship emerges the captain, Louis and Anna Leonowens (Kelli O’Hara). It is all there — the sunset lighting, the Siam (Thai) inspired wall hangings on each side of the stage — we are being transported.
What follows feels at times like total immersion in this culture. We feel as confused as Anna does with the traditions, attitudes and beliefs of the country.
For those who have forgotten the plot of this Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, it centers around the experiences of Anna, a young English widow with a son, who is hired to teach the children of the King of Siam, a man who is seeking to be a “modern” king. Though she has lived in the Far East for a long time, she still finds the court of Siam very different and there are no other English to help make the transition.
She meets the King’s powerful advisor Kralahome, and learns that although the King agreed to give her a house outside the palace gates no such home is ready for her and she is warned not to press the King on this matter. After meeting Lady Thiang, the King’s head wife and the King, she meets the other wives and the children — the King has over 60 children but Anna will only be teaching those whose mothers are favored.
Two subplots figure prominently in the show. The first involves Tuptin and Lun Tha. Tuptin is “given” to the King by the King of Burma and is delivered to him by Lun Tha. Unfortunately they love each other.
The second subplot involves the concern that Siam may be taken over by one of the European powers — the French had just made moves on another Indochina country and the British also were looking to expand their empire. The King is concerned that if he is viewed as a “barbarian” it will provide the western countries with the rationalization they are looking to find.
Both Anna and the King are fascinating, complex characters. Anna is a rarity for the 1860s; an independent woman making her way in the world when she could have retreated to a more secluded life. She also is willing, despite misgivings, to speak her mind and demand that she be taken seriously.
The King is equally complex. He is an absolute ruler who senses his mortality and the need to “modernize” his thinking. But he finds it difficult and confusing to do so; he understand the need to interact with the western world though he finds their ways “a puzzlement.”
This is a musical with a bittersweet ending; two love stories — one that is forbidden and one that is barely acknowledged ; both end with the death of the man.
Bartlett Sher has once again proven his expertise with Rodgers & Hammerstein. His revival at Lincoln Center of South Pacific was just about perfect and this production has many fine touches.
I particularly liked his handling of the introduction of the children to Anna. Each child had a unique personality that made them endearing in the way they interacted with their father and Miss Anna. With the help of his fine cast, these are not characters in a musical comedy but real people who just happen to occasional burst out into song.
Of course, Rodgers and Hammerstein gives them some marvelous songs from the opening “I Whistle a Happy Tune” right through to “Shall We Dance?” In between there are the soaring love songs — though often with a bittersweet tone — such as “We Kiss in a Shadow,” “I Have Dreamed,” and “Hello, Young Lovers” as well as songs with a comic touch including “A Puzzlement” and “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” This is a varied and complete score that under the music direction of Ted Sperling reaches its full potential.
Yul Brynner has been identified with the role of the King — he was rocketed to stardom in the original 1951 production, starred also in the movie and in countless revivals and tours until his death. Let’s start by admitting the Brynner’s King was very theatrical and got more so the longer he played the role.
Ken Wantanbe, the well known Japanese actor, bring more realism to the role. His King is still autocratic, mercurial, demanding and sometimes menacing but yet he seems less like an actor and more like a person. He shows more of the King’s anxieties about the future, ruling and his own mortality. But there is a problem. Wantanbe is not as comfortable with English and therefore some of his lines are so heavily accented as to be difficult to understand. I suspect the longer the plays the role, the clearer he will become. It is not a consistent problem — much of his dialogue IS quite understandable but there are some lines than seem a puzzlement to him and the audience.
Once again Sher has teamed up with Kelli O’Hara who has perhaps the most lyrical voice of today’s leading ladies. O’Hara brings her famed ability to create a connection with both the audience and her leading man. She lets you see the uncertainty beneath the confident exterior and her scene with Sir Edward Ramsey, a British diplomat who obviously is attracted to her is touching. Plus, as usual, she sings magnificently.
Ruthie Ann Miles is fine as Lady Thiang and Ashley Park is radiant as Tuptim. Conrad Ricamora is excellent as Lun Tha.
The entire production is lush — from the costumes by Catherine Zuber, the sets by Michael Yeargan, the lighting by Donald Holder and the sound by Scott Lehrer.
A final note — I am not usually a big fan of the “Small House of Uncle Thomas” production which is put on for the British ambassador. It seems unnecessary and just delays getting to the final scenes as “Shall We Dance?” But this time, I enjoyed both the staging and the choreography.
The last scenes are always touching when the King and Anna become friends and realize though they do speak of it, their deep affection — dare we say love — for each other. It is then almost immediately followed by the King’s death.
As always these are touching, emotionally charged moments.
It you love The King and I or if you have never seen it, you should absolutely see this production at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater. Tickets are available through Telecharge.