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Uff da! Clifton’s “The Norwegians” Delights

Review by Katie N. Johnson of The Norwegians: Clifton Performance Theatre

Norwegians don’t brag. Norwegians aren’t flashy, self-promoting or ostentatious. Norwegians are understated, humble, and self-effacing. They will get the job done without drawing attention to themselves.   Because that’s the Norwegian way, playwright C. Denby Swanson tells us.

But if they did allow self-aggrandizing, then bragging rights would go to the talented cast of The Norwegians at the Clifton Performance Theatre. This delightful comedy takes a simple conceit—hiring two “nice” Norwegian-American hit men to settle an old romantic score—and extends it for an amusing two-act play.

If the flags from the Sons of Norway in the lobby provided any clues, it is that Norwegians will show up to anything Norwegian, even when you poke fun at them. This is something Garrison Keillor discovered long ago. Where The Norwegians departs from the fictional idyllic landscape of Lake Wobegon, however, is the noir-like twist in events, which, at times, seems a bit derivative of Fargo.

Nice guy thugs Tor (Sean Dillon) and Gus (Michael G. Bath) set the humorous tone in the first scene with Olive, the young woman who hires them to kill her ex (Miranda McGee)—all with superb performances. As every Fargo fan knows, a great delight arises in hearing characters with pronounced “Minnesooota” accents. I have experienced this myself, hailing from a Scandinavian community and having attended a Norwegian college with a fight song containing the embarrassing words “Um ya ya!” Having been accused of possessing this accent (oh ya), I found the actors’ dialects were not always spot on (such as the mispronunciation of Lutefisk or the mis-delivery of Uff da!).

Overall, Bath’s Gus embodied perfectly the “Minnesota nice” guy next door with a dark side, while Dillon’s Tor possessed the strong, quiet “God of Thunder” with ulterior motives. Carol Brammer’s Betty delivered a spunky friend to McGee’s pitch-perfect and electric, Olive. Within this excellent ensemble cast, the night belonged to McGee.

Swanson’s play not only portrays hilarious nice-guy hit men from Minnesota, but also a Texas jilted girlfriend (Olive) and a Kentucky transplant (Betty), who schools Olive about “Minnesota nice.” In bringing together these disparate regional identities, it is as if Swanson did not trust the Minnesota–specific context, although it did open up conversations about what a “true Norwegian” was. Or wasn’t. Gus, for example, is not entirely Norwegian, a running gag throughout the show.

Swanson’s crisp dialogue flowed with a solid pacing by director Cathy Springfield, coming to life with hilarity in the hands of this talented cast. While the first few scenes felt a bit static, the blocking gained in complexity as the action built.

The small black-box-like space in the Clifton Performance Theatre offers wonderful proximity and intimacy with the actors. It is a gem of a space. Such a small theatre also presents design challenges. Nonetheless, set designer Carter Bratton and lighting designer Garry Davidson skillfully conveyed different scenes. The use of a simple scrim, when backlit, showed a dream-like quality of the nighttime sky. There was one inexplicable dance sequence behind the scrim that left several of us wondering what it meant.

What are we to take away from this play? In a post-Fargo world, more is required beyond the easy laughs that come from the ridiculing of Minnesota accents and Scandinavian stoicism. The Norwegians gestures at more meaning, such as the when the hit jobs produce regret. But unlike Fargo, where the comedy ultimately leads to horrific grinding of body parts, The Norwegians does not delve more deeply.

But as a comedy, it was a nice play, you know. Ya, sure.