By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News
“Oslo,” the Tony award-winning play running through Oct. 20 at Chicago’s Broadway Playhouse, is a remarkable story about the 1990s Oslo Accords and the Arab-Israeli peace process – the unlikely friendships, quiet heroics and sheer determination that pushed two foes to reach something neither thought truly possible – peace.
Bernard Balbot, a Jewish actor living in Ravenswood, performs two roles, one in the Israeli camp and one in the Norwegian camp of negotiations. He plays Jan Egeland, who co-initiated and co-organized the Norwegian channel between Israel and the Palestinians in 1992, and Ron Pundake, an Israeli academic who took part in the secret talks and remained an ardent advocate for peace even after relations between the sides unraveled.
“I love Ron (Pundake) as a character,” Balbot said. He was a pupil of Yair Hirschfeld, another Israeli academic who was a key architect of the Oslo Accords, which were signed Sept. 13, 1993 with a handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin at the White House. “There was a mentor-mentee relationship here.”
Balbot is making his TimeLine Theatre debut in this Chicago premiere production directed by Nick Bowling and written by American playwright J.T. Rogers. Rogers chose Timeline for the first Chicago production of “Oslo” because of the mid-size company’s extraordinary efforts to stage his earlier work “Blood and Gifts,” a drama about Afghanistan.
“Oslo” balances humor and high-stakes complication, Balbot said. Pundake and Hirschfeld (Ron E. Rains) are described in the play “like kind of a Laurel and Hardy duo. Within the scope of the play, we add a little levity in it. We’re lowly university professors who don’t wield a ton of power but are there because our hearts are in the right place and we see the importance of the event.
“It’s great on a personal level to play a character that I really admire,” Balbot says of Egeland. “I’ve really enjoyed learning about his life and work with the UN. He’s continued to work on behalf of human rights issues and nations across the globe.”
Playing both Pundake and Egeland, “makes for some really interesting perspective shifts as an actor.”
Balbot adds that “It’s really exciting to be part of a play that is so ensemble-based and it’s focusing on a really complex issue and trying to tell a relatable, emotionally evocative story that doesn’t have an easy answer.
“It serves as a really wonderful reminder of both personally and I think for the public that we should still pursue things even if they’re difficult and quick fixes don’t necessarily provide suitable solutions. It’s really inspiring even if people have their doubts.”
“Oslo” premiered in fall 2016 in a sold-out run at New York’s Lincoln Center and opened on Broadway in April 2017. “Oslo” received the 2017 Tony Award for Best Play, as well as New York Critics, Outer Critics, Drama Desk, Drama League, Lucille Lortel, and Obie awards—a sweep of the 2016-17 New York awards season—and was nominated for the Olivier and Evening Standard awards.
Associated Press called it “riveting political theater.” The Washington Post raved that “its account of intractable foes finding common ground is irresistible and deeply moving.” The New York Times declared that it is “the stuff of crackling theater.”
Balbot was raised in Pittsburgh, graduated with a B.F.A. in fine arts from Carnegie Mellon University, and became a Chicago-based theater artist in 2009. His Chicago credits include “Company” and “She Loves Me,” (Writer’s Theatre) “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” (Chicago Shakespeare) “You Can’t Take It With You” (Northlight) and “We Are Proud to Present a Presentation” (Victory Gardens.) He is also director of new play development at Jackalope Theater Company.
His Judaism informs his career as an actor. “Everyone comes back to the number one precept, love thy neighbor as thyself. I do not think that maxim could be more ever-present in a play than it is in ‘Oslo.’”
It’s really amazing to be a part of a play that is grappling with an issue that has been ever present in our community. This play forces the audience to waver back and forth and recognize the validity of both sides.”
“Oslo” runs through Oct. 20 at Broadway in Chicago’s Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut Street in Water Tower Place. To purchase tickets, call 312-977-1700 or buy online at www.timelinetheater.com/calendar.