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A talented cast can’t save 'The Norwegians' from drowning in Minnesota cliches

Melissa Hesse

Melissa Hesse

It’s immediately clear from how the setting is described what kind of play The Norwegians is going to be. According to the program, the events take place in “Minnesota. Now. Winter (always).” We’ve just had the warmest fall on record, and our state bird is moving north because of climate change... but sure, let’s just make this about how Minnesota is pure permafrost.

The Norwegians

Grain Belt Brewery Warehouse
$15-$39

Let’s also make it about white ethnic essentialism, because that’s always been good for a laugh in Minnesota — or, at least, it has been since Scandinavian-Americans stopped being seen as undesirable minorities and German-Americans stopped being suspected of harboring Nazi sympathies.

C. Denby Swanson’s play just premiered in 2013, indicating that someone, somehow, still thinks we need to take another swipe at hot dish. Maybe this seemed novel in New York, where the play debuted, but in its Twin Cities premiere, courtesy of Dark & Stormy Productions, this material seems about as fresh as a fillet of frozen lutefisk. There’s a lot of talent involved in this production, from director Joel Sass on down, but it can’t save this script.

Olive (Jane Froiland) is a transplant from Texas to Minnesota, where her heart was broken so badly that she’s ready to murder the bastard who dumped her. Enter the Norwegians: Tor (Luverne Seifert) and Gus (James Rodríguez), gangsters who describe themselves as “the nice ones.” They welcome Olive and solicitously take her order for a snuffing, all the while humble-bragging about their proud heritage.

That meeting is repeatedly interrupted by flashbacks in which Olive walks into a bar and meets the suspiciously intense Betty (Sara Marsh), who had one of her own exes killed and enthusiastically recommends it. We know these scenes are flashbacks because they’re signaled by the sound of a rewinding tape, as the actors “rewind” their bodies by spinning around and flailing their arms.

Eventually there’s a slow-arcing plot twist, but the plot isn’t the point of this show: The story is a frame on which to hang long, unfunny monologues about the characters’ love-hate relationship with Swanson’s hoary stereotype of Minnesota. Marsh works herself into a frenzy as she describes the Norwegian she loved and lost, but trying to spark interest in this material is like trying to squeeze water from a runestone.

There’s more, too much more: a non sequitur dance fantasy, an aside about what Tor is thinking when he looks into the face of someone who’s about to die, an extended discussion about the nature of irony.

The show’s premise invites comparisons to Gopher-gothic classic Fargo, and the eerily smiling Rodríguez paired with the imposing Seifert could have made for a genuinely scary situation. The only thing frightening about The Norwegians, though, is that when it’s finally over you find yourself 90 minutes closer to death.

The Norwegians
Grain Belt Brewery Warehouse
77 13th Ave. NE, Minneapolis
www.darkstormy.org; through December 30