Naïve. Super adapted for the stage at Norway House

A Norwegian novel comes to life

Naive. Super

Photo : Johanna Buch
Ashley Horiuchi performs Erlend Loe’s Naïve. Super, while adapter, director, and producer Kurt Engh (far right) gives offstage guidance. The performance was staged in the unfinished lower level of Norway House in Minneapolis.

Synneva Bratland
The Norwegian American

Since its publication in 1995, Naïve. Super. by Erlend Loe has held a strong position in countless Norwegian language curriculums. For many students, it is the first book they read in Norwegian. As a result, this bestselling cult novel about a 25-year-old questioning life and purpose has become a familiar favorite in Norway and around the globe.

Twin Cities-based theater artist Kurt Engh thought the novel was the perfect vehicle for a contemporary Norwegian theatrical production. He had also recently moved back from New York and saw many of his own experiences reflected in the text. As many of us do, Engh found himself asking questions like “What is important to me? How do I take the next step in my life? How do I surround myself with people that are meaningful to me?” His second self-produced play, Naïve. Super is the product of those questions.

The story (both in Loe’s novel and Engh’s adaptation) hinges on an unnamed character’s relationships with the people around him, such as their brother, their parents, a young neighbor boy, and a potential love interest. Over the course of the show, the character stays occupied with simple activities like throwing a ball against the wall and goes on huge adventures like visiting their brother in New York City. Through these experiences (and everything in between), they try to understand themself and the world around them.

I attended a performance of Naïve. Super on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Minneapolis in early September. The show was staged at Norway House, and it cleverly used the building’s unfinished lower level as a sort of black box theater.

After finding a seat, the first thing I noticed was the technology. As someone born in the late 1990s, this is the technology of my childhood—a boxy TV, a fax machine, two projectors, a landline phone, and an overhead projector all bathed in the glow from an orange, mushroom-shaped lamp. These objects represent a time of digital discovery and revolution. In my case, being surrounded by this technology feels comforting, like stepping into a back room at my elementary school.

Throughout Loe’s novel, the character is captivated by (and spends a lot of time explaining) the technology he uses. While a lot of this—like sending a fax or visiting the library to access the internet­—feels outdated and is common knowledge in 2023, through the physical presence of this technology, Engh immediately plants the audience in a late-1990s experience of technology. To go even further, Engh used almost exclusively a Comic Sans typeface and Microsoft WordArt for representations of text.

Uniquely, the show was performed by a new actor each time, allowing the actor and the audience members to watch the story unfold together. During the performance, Engh sat behind a pane of glass and gave directions through an earpiece, while the actor’s lines appeared on paper and screens in all corners of the stage. Engh shared that some actors described it as “a dramatic escape room, a live audiobook, or a choose-your-own-adventure video game.” For everyone involved, the production was clearly an exercise in trust.

Engh encouraged each actor to simply be themself, despite their own worries that they might get it wrong. He emphasized that “you can’t be yourself wrong, you can’t mess up incorrectly.” The process involved a lot of breaking down of barriers in the actor’s own mind and communicating that “failure” is exactly what he was looking for. He shared that “some of my favorite parts of the performances have been when things aren’t going perfectly well, and to see what the actors do to adapt the piece and make the show go on.”

The show I attended was performed by 18-year-old George Kleven, a freshman in the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA Actor Training Program. That afternoon’s audience included many of his classmates, there to support their new friend. In addition to creating a supportive atmosphere, having all these young college students in the room made it impossible to forget how the character’s experiences are reflected in each of us.

The unpredictable format of the show creates a unique connection between the performer and the audience. There is an incredible vulnerability to performing (intentionally) unfamiliar material in front of a live audience. On top of that, there’s an intimacy of, as Engh describes it: “I’m performing this other character, but the character is kind of me.”

Ultimately, Naïve. Super is a simple story that gives a nuanced and personal glimpse into the confusion and challenges of young adulthood and the search for a sense of belonging in it all. As I experience a lot of this myself, this story serves as a sort of guide—find good friends, pay attention to what you like, ask questions, and hope that you are maybe, only maybe, a good person.

This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Synneva Bratland

Synneva Bratland is the Editorial Assistant for The Norwegian American. Born and raised in Minnesota, she attended folkehøgskole outside of Oslo before receiving a dual degree in Norwegian and Mathematics from St. Olaf College. She currently lives in St. Paul, where she can be found playing Nordic folk music, instructing Norwegian language courses, and making art at her kitchen table.