Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Dark & Stormy Productions, who, under the helm of Artistic Director Sara Marsh make a specialty of programming anti-holiday fare in December, have brought The Norwegians back after staging it three seasons ago. But compared to their anti-holiday production last year, the profoundly sad Blackbird, The Norwegians is a good-time show. It is a comedy about a pair of women, Olive and Betty, who assuage their anger at ex-boyfriends by hiring a pair of hit men to do them in. Mind you, their exes were not viciously abusive, did not defraud their gals of a fortune, and didn't leave them with an incurable disease. Nope, the guys just wanted to end the relationship. So it may seem like a rash reaction on the part of the two ladies. Perhaps becauseunlike the Norwegian-Minnesotan hitmenBetty and Olive are neither Norwegian nor Minnesotan (Betty is from Kentucky, Olive from Texas), niceness does not run in their veins.
The play opens with Olive, a bundle of nerves over her decision to do-in her ex, being interviewed by Tor and Gus, the two hitmen for them to determine whether they can trust her enough to take on her case. They are especially vehement about knowing who referred Olive to them. Gus says they need to know for marketing reasonsto send whomever it was a thank you gift, maybe a fruit basket. Olive is afraid to tell them, but Gus and Tor won't take no for an answer. Nor, having gotten in this deep, will they let her change her mind about the kill. In flashbacks we see Olive being befriended by Betty at a bar, where Betty lets slip that she has taken out a contract to have her own ex bumped off and passively allows Olive to snag the names of the killers.
The ninety-minute play moves swiftly for the first hour, with a couple of "gotcha" plot twists and an abundance of solid laughs, some at the expense of stereotypes of Norwegians and Minnesotans along with some jabs at Texans, Italians and the Swiss, among other tropes. Gags about Norwegians having invented everything in the civilized world gets a little tiresome, but there are enough other solid lines to give those a pass. In the last hour, a pair of diversionsGus expounding rhapsodically about the Minnesota Twins (a baseball bat figures in the plot) and a dance scene in which the four characters appear in costumes representing their psychic identitiesfeel like digressions, notions that seemed clever but were not well integrated into the narrative. Still, the tale comes together for a twisted ending that makes sense and could even be called satisfying, within the gallows-humor logic of the story.
The Norwegians first appeared in 2009 as a ten-minute play, the product of one of those 24-hour marathons where playwrights are given a prompt, then set free to come up with something. Swanson developed it into a 90-minute version, which in 2014 ran for a year Off-Off-Broadway at the The Drilling Company. For this remount, playwright Swanson has tinkered with the play, and director Matthew G. Anderson has drawn out more of the play's darkness than did predecessor Joel Sass, though the high quotient of laughter per sinister deed still allows for a lightness that allows the audience to enjoy themselves despite the reprehensible plot unraveling on stage.
Three fourths of the cast have returned from the 2016 production. Marsh and Jane Froiland again are Betty and Olive, respectively, and both have brought their previous fine performances to an even glossier shine. Froiland conveys Olive's fraught state of mind over hiring the hit men, her gullibility in Betty's hands, and her malleability as she turns the tables in the final scene. Marsh allows us to almost see the wheels turning in Betty's mind as she schemes to draw this overwrought Texan into her scheme. She is splendid in a deranged rant about the falsity of Norwegian values, going so far as to ascribe sinister purposes to their charitable giving to social services and patronage of the arts.
Luverne Siefert is also back as Tor, one of the nice Norwegian hit men. This time, however, Siefert more clearly reveals the darkness in Tor's heart, enabling us to see his "Minnesota nice" routine is a cover for his true nature. New to the cast is Avi Aharoni (replacing James Rodriguez) as Tor's partner in crime Gus who, for reasons we learn in due time, is not quite your typical Norwegian with a short fuse and easily enflamed passions that do not fit the Nordic mold. Aharoni superbly portrays Gus's agitation and restlessness, along with his dumbness that plays so well into Tor's hands. As Siefert makes Tor more visibly evil than when we met him three years ago, Aharoni plays Gus as not quite as absolutely evil as we remember him. Siefert and Aharoni are terrifically matched, finishing each other's sentences in a kind of slapstick good cop/bad cop manner.
Technical and design duties are very well handled by the entire team. Lisa Jones dresses the characters in appropriately wintery parkas and sweaters worn as if to heat up the chill in their hearts. Aaron Newman's sound design provides effectively howling wind, atmospheric music for transitions, andalong with lighting designer Mary Shabaturabegins each new scene with a tension-instilling sudden drumbeat and bolt of light.
If you missed The Norwegians before and are looking for something to balance the sugar plum fairies, Tiny Tims, and Rudolphs appearing on stages everywhere, this might be up your alley. If you caught it last time around, you will know whether or not another evening spent with these bad-ass Norwegians sounds like a good time. You will find all the humor and hearty laughs still there, the performances ratcheted to be more balanced, and the darkness even more pervasive.
The Norwegians runs through January 5, 2020, at Dark & Stormy Productions in the Grain Belt Warehouse, 77 13th Avenue N.E, Studio 201, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $34.00 - $39.00, under age 30 tickets: $15.00. For tickets call 612-401-4506 or visit www.darkstormy.org.
Playwright: C. Denby Swanson; Director: Matthew G. Anderson ; Costume Design: Lisa Jones; Lighting Design: Mary Shabatura; Sound Design: Aaron Newman; Violence and Intimacy Director: Annie Enneking; Stage Manager: Rachael Rhodes; Technical and Design Consultant: Michael James; Stage Manager: Lizzie Streif; Assistant Stage Manager: Isabel Patt.
Cast: Avi Aharoni (Gus), Jane Froiland (Olive), Sara Marsh (Betty), Luverne Siefert (Tor).