Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
That this is the play's first stop in the Land of Lakes is surprising, considering that it uses (and abuses) stereotypes of Minnesota Nice and of the Norwegian ancestry proudly heralded by many of our state's residents. Most of all, though, the play pokes fun at the film noir motif, setting up a situation so absurdly wicked that laughter is the only way out.
The Norwegians is the story of two southern gals: Olive (Jane Froiland) from Kentucky and Betty (Sara Marsh) from Texas, who meet while sharing a cab in Minneapolis, and find that they have a lot in common. Both have recently been jilted by their boyfriends and both would like the offending boyfriends to be dead. After consuming a large amount of alcohol, Olive declares her intention to hire a hit manactually, being politically correct, she uses the phrase hit personto rub out her ex. Betty then reveals that she actually has already put the drop on her ex, and casually allows Olive to snatch her hit men's, er, persons' business card.
In this way, Olive hooks up with the Norwegians, Tor (Luverne Seifert) and Gus (James Rodriguez). To Olive's surprise, they put her through a grueling interview before deciding if they trust her enough to accept her assignment. But it is not that grueling. After all, they are Norwegianswhich means nice, albeit in a passive-aggressive way. Actually, Tor is the really, really nice one. Gus is more menacingunderstandable when it comes out that he is not pure Norwegian, but has a little something else in him. Betty ends up a part of the negotiations with Tor and Gus when it turns out that her involvement with them had some complications. Olive is surprised by every turn of the transactionwell, who would know what to expect they first time they hire a hit person? Mathematically, there are a fairly limited number of options for how things can turn out, and yet the end feels like a surprise.
Actually, almost everything in The Norwegians feels like a surprise. Swanson has created a totally implausible scenario and filled it with so much gallows humor, irony, and original wit that the whole business becomes a giddy joy ride: not heading anywhere in particular, and with an element of danger, yet undeniably fun. There is also a large dose of fun poked at Minnesotans' self-image as ethical, industrious and hospitable, and of the Norwegian stereotypes of self-reliance, robustness and piety. Tor in particular (the pure Norwegian) takes great pride in his heritage, and attributes everything good in western civilizationeven Greek mythologyto his Nordic forbearers.
The cast is perfect. Jane Froiland is hilarious as Olive, totally over her head in putting a contract out on her ex, and completely disassociated from the reality of her actions. Sara Marsh totally nails Betty, a conniving vixen, both cynical about and desperate to embrace love. Her physicality keeps Betty in constant motion, so that no one could ever pin her down. Luverne Seifert's looming presence as Tor plays delightfully against his insistence on being a virtuous, full-blooded Norwegian and loyal Minnesotan, while James Rodriguez is terrific as the more emotional Gus, teetering between hair-trigger violence and moony romantic. The four play against each other with total abandon, intensifying both the comic and sinister aspects of every scene.
Joel Sass's direction keeps things moving swiftly, and provides wonderful transitions where the actors literally fast forward and rewind back and forth in time. Dark & Stormy Production's flexible space is arranged with the audience on either side of an elongated thrust stage. The simple settingSass is credited as set "coordinator", not designeris simply a table and chairs, with a jukebox at the rear and snow scattered on the ground. A. Emily Heaney's costumes are well suited to each character, realistic except for in a wacky dream sequence that also offers some lively choreography by Angela Manella. Aaron Newman's sound design includes noirish background music, and Mary Shabatura's lighting alters the moods to depict varying shades of malice.
Swanson, a native of Austin, Texas, no doubt picked up insights into the Minnesotan-Norwegian intersect during two years spent at the Playwright's Center. The Norwegians premiered in 2013 at The Drilling Company, an Off-Off Broadway theater in New York City dedicated to new work, and it enjoyed a year-long run. No doubt such cultural touchstones as Fargo and Jessie Ventura gave Big Apple audiences the background to appreciate the irony and humor in Swanson's wild take on livingand killingin Minnesota.
The play is not without flaws. A speech by Tor waxing romantic over the Minnesota Twins seems a bit long, to no particular effect, and the constant reminders about the glory of all things Norwegian become a bit tiresome. But the whole play runs a swift ninety minutes, so we never get stuck in any slow spots before the next whiff of criminal absurdity shakes us up.
The Norwegians would be a fun ride any time of year. In addition, right now it offers an antidote for anyone looking for escape from the flood of holiday-themed shows, but is okay with seeing some snow on the ground. It is entertaining fare, without getting weighted down with a messageexcept that hiring a hit person is a gruesome, albeit hilarious, business.
The Norwegians continues through December 30, 2016, presented by Dark & Stormy Productions and The Mount Curve Company, with North Star Theatricals and Triumph Productions, in partnership with ArtsSpace at the Grain Belt Warehouse, 77 13th Avenue N.E, Studio 201, Minneapolis, Tickets: $29.00 - $34.00, under age 30 tickets: $15.00. For tickets call 612-401-4506 or go to darkstormy.org.
Written by C. Denby Swanson; Director and Set Coordinator: Joel Sass; Costume Design: A. Emily Heaney Lighting: Mary Shabatura; Sound Design: Aaron Newman; Choreography: Angela Manella; Production Stage Manager: Jared Zeigler; Assistant Stage Manager: Alec Lambert; Producer: Frances Wilkinson; Associate Producers: Jennifer Melin Miller and Christopher Schout.
Cast: Jane Froiland (Olive), Sara Marsh (Betty), James Rodríguez (Gus), Luverne Seifert (Tor).