Black comedy ‘The Norwegians’ is crisp, sharp, and loaded with laughs

Photo by Melissa Hesse
Jane Froiland and Luverne Seifert (back row) and Sara Marsh (front row) in “The Norwegians”

As surely as the malls start playing Christmas music too soon, Dark & Stormy Productions rolls out a play that has nothing to do with Christmas – just in time for the holidays. After 2013’s “The Receptionist,” about an office full of torturers, 2014’s “Hothouse,” about the corruption of power in an ambiguous institution, and 2015’s “Sunshine,” about a sex worker, this year’s “The Norwegians” fits right in.

C. Denby Swanson’s play is about a pair of Uff-da-ing killers for hire and the two jilted women who hire them. It’s winter, their boyfriends have dumped them, and they want revenge, because “here in Minnesota, you gotta find a lover before the first freeze or else it’s just too late, you’re iced in for a very long time.”

Swanson is based in Austin, Texas, but she’s a Playwrights’ Center affiliated writer, so she knows about Minnesota winters. She also knows how to craft a 90-minute play, D&S’s ideal length. Joel Sass’ direction allows for no lag time.

As the play opens, Tor (Luverne Seifert) and Gus (James Rodríguez) are questioning potential client Olive (Jane Froiland) under harsh light. How did she find them? Who sent her? As Gus explains, they need that information for “marketing purposes.” And “83 percent of our clients want to take out their ex.” They would like Olive to fill out their “optional demographic form.” Seifert and Rodríguez pull off complex characters, each a blend of businesslike behavior, genial doofiness and genuine menace.

Jumping back in time a bit, the next scene finds Olive and her new friend Betty (Sara Marsh) in a wine bar, discovering they have something in common: They want their exes dead. Olive is from Texas, a newbie to the North, but Betty has been here for five years – five long, cold winters.

The interrogation room and the wine bar are the two sets, distinguished mostly by the addition and subtraction of a red-and-white checkered tablecloth. Sass uses the fast-rewind technique – lights flickering, sounds bending, actors moving in quick jerks – to shift us from scene to scene. The cast is just right, something (along with holiday counterprogramming) we’ve come to expect from D&S. Seifert, fresh from his role as the abusive stepfather in the Children’s Theatre’s “The Last Firefly,” is cuddly evil. (He reminded us of Vincent D’Onofrio. That’s a good thing.) Rodríguez, whose last role with D&S was as the rapist in “Extremities,” shines as a Norwegian with “a little bit of something else in him.” Marsh packs Betty with bitterness and colorful language. Midway through the play, she delivers a colorful oration on the Norwegians that made one audience member laugh until he cried. It’s fun to watch Froiland as Olive discover her inner murderous rage.

Swanson’s script is crisp, sharp and loaded with laughs, none of which will make you feel guilty. In Minnesota, we’re used to ribbing Norwegians, and Norwegians don’t seem to mind jokes at our (um, their) expense. When Tor explains that “Norwegians evolved … to conserve the energy we might spend on emotions and use it for heat instead,” we understand. Maybe this plays differently in New York?

“The Norwegians” is not an earth-changing, awareness-raising play. It’s not one into which you can read an important, timely message, nor should you try. It’s a black comedy, an entertainment, carried off with D&S’s usual big imagination and small budget, in a place it has called home since 2015, a bare second-floor room in Artspace’s Grain Belt Warehouse. As always, kudos to the production team for doing so much with so little.

FMI and tickets ($34/$39; $15 under 30). Ends Friday, Dec. 30. Not for the kiddies.

Hamilton is coming and here’s how not to miss it

News that the national tour of “Hamilton” will play the Orpheum as part of the 2018-19 Broadway on Hennepin season brought jubilation. Two seasons out isn’t that long to wait. Then we read the fine print: “The best way to guarantee seats to HAMILTON is to purchase a subscription for the 2017-2018 season. … Subscribers who renew for the 2018-2019 season will be able to guarantee their seats.”

What?!? We have to buy two whole seasons if we want to see “Hamilton”? At the same time? Some people thought so. (We did, briefly.) Hennepin Theatre Trust spokesperson Dale Stark set us straight.

Subscriptions to 2018-19 won’t go on sale until 2018. If you buy a 2017-18 subscription (those go on sale Monday, Jan. 23), you won’t have to sweat your seats when 2018 comes along. “We always say the best way to guarantee you’ll get a ticket to a show is to become a season subscriber, because subscribers get first crack at tickets,” Stark said. “Down the road, you have those seats until you give them up.

“Everyone who buys a season subscription, even if they wait until 2018-19, is going to see the show.” There will also be a general public on-sale for “Hamilton” sometime in 2018.

Stark compares “Hamilton” to “Book of Mormon” and “Wicked” in terms of popularity. “Every so often, you have a show that all of a sudden, everyone knows about and wants to see.” And what goes around, comes around. “Book of Mormon” returned for the third time in May. “Wicked” will be back for the fifth time in April.

Subscriptions to the 2017-18 season, yet to be announced, go on sale Monday, Jan. 23.

The picks

Today (Tuesday, Dec. 13) at the Westminster Town Hall Forum: Thomas L. Friedman: “Thriving in an Age of Accelerations.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning weekly columnist for the New York Times and National Book Award-winning author (“From Beirut to Jerusalem”) draws on his latest book, “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Acccelerations,” to talk about the 21st century and how technology, globalization, climate change and biodiversity loss are speeding up and reshaping the world today. Noon. Free and open to the public.

Courtesy of the Bryant-Lake Bowl
“Star Wars”

Wednesday at the Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater: The 10th Annual “Star Wars” Holiday Special and Toys for Tots Benefit. Thursday is the nationwide opening of “Rogue One,” which absolutely everyone is going to see, but Wednesday is its own quirky “Star Wars” thing: BLB’s annual airing of the 1978 musical TV film, the notorious dud that is now a cult classic. You can’t buy a ticket in advance or at the door; the only admission is a Toys for Tots toy. Shows at 4, 7 and 10 p.m. Doors at 3:30 and 6:30. FMI.  

Now at the Park Square: “The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer.” This crowd-pleasing musical (the 2012 Park Square production won an Ivey) goes back in time to 1920s New York and the birth of the American songbook. Directed by Peter Moore, with Michael Paul Levin as George Gershwin, vocalists Maggie Burton, Maud Hixson and Geoffrey Jones, and a band of Twin Cities jazz heavy hitters. On the main stage. FMI, show times and and tickets ($40/60). Ends Dec. 31.

Thursday through Sunday at the Howard Conn Fine Arts Center in Plymouth Church: “The Littlest Angel.” Based on the book by Charles Tazewell that’s been in print for more than 60 years, this Christmas tale tells of a four-year-old who ends up in heaven but doesn’t act at all angelic – he’s too homesick for Earth – until he’s called on to give a gift to the newborn Christ Child. Youth Performance Company is positioning this as a story “for any child who has ever dreamed of transforming from ‘troublemaker’ to ‘hero.’” FMI including performance times and tickets ($12/$15).

Saturday and Sunday at Orchestra Hall: “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Concert.” If you’re thinking that the Orchestra is playing a lot of film scores lately – live, while the movies flicker on a big screen above them – you’re right. This season especially, there’s an abundance of this type of performance: “E.T. the Extra-terrestrial” (October), “Ratatouille in Concert” (November), “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in Concert” (last weekend), “Star Trek” (July 2017), and this weekend’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” one of the best holiday films ever. A bona-fide, fun-for-the-whole-family experience, and a chance for everyone to enjoy the great Minnesota Orchestra with the Minnesota Chorale. Sarah Hicks conducts. Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. FMI and tickets ($30-80).

Hot tix

On sale Thursday at 10 a.m.: Norah Jones at Northrop. Her 2002 release “Come Away With Me” swept the 2003 Grammys and started endless arguments about what jazz is and isn’t. Most people concluded who cares, just play the music. She has sold 45 million albums, won more Grammys (nine so far), made folk/country and honky-tonk albums, and worked with Jack White, Danger Mouse, Q-Tip and Robert Glasper. Recorded with Wayne Shorter, Dr. Lonnie Smith and Brian Blade, her just-released “Day Break” is a return to her jazz roots. It’s not super-jazzy but it’s awfully nice, and she’ll charm us all when she sings it at Northrop on June 3. FMI and tickets ($58/$71).

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