Scena’s dark comedy

The Norwegians tickles Washington, D.C., with hilarious mockery of “Minnesota nice”

Photo: Jae Yi Photography / Scena Theatre Ron Litman, Nora Achrati, and Brian Hemmingsen in The Norwegians.

Photo: Jae Yi Photography / Scena Theatre
Ron Litman, Nora Achrati, and Brian Hemmingsen in The Norwegians.

Christine Foster Meloni
Washington, D.C.

Norwegian Americans are the only ethnic group in the U.S. that can laugh at itself. Or so it is said. Those at the performance of the dark comedy The Norwegians in our nation’s capital certainly proved that they could thoroughly enjoy being made fun of.

The Scena Theatre staged a fast-paced, hilarious performance of Swanson’s play and had the audience in stitches for the full 90 minutes. The entire cast was extraordinary, each actor giving a virtually flawless performance. Minnesota was the setting and also an ever-present, although silent, character.

Two women, Olive (Nora Achrati) and Betty (Nanna Ingvarsson), left the South and ended up, much to their dismay, in an alien northern state. Olive, a feisty transplanted Texan, meets Betty, a distraught Kentucky native, in a bar. Not only are they fish out of water in Minneapolis, they are also suffering from broken hearts. Betty is angry and bent on revenge. She has, therefore, hired a hit man to eliminate her ex. She convinces Olive that she should do the same.

So Olive goes to the office of two nice (Minnesota Nice) Norwegian (Minnesota Norwegian) hitmen, Gus (Brian Hemmingsen) and Tor (Ron Litman). The office decor reflects their heritage—a Norwegian flag, a moose head, a picture of the current King of Norway, a plate with a fish image, and a sled.

Tor is the perfect stereotypical Minnesota Norwegian. In his “Fargo” accent, he explains the predominant characteristics of Minnesota Norwegians. They are loyal. They are restrained. They are not showy, and they don’t brag. They don’t like variety. They don’t like ethnic foods. They are unemotional. They don’t waste energy on emotions because they need it for heat.

Gus occasionally flies off the handle. Tor hastens to assure Olive that what he’s told her still holds true. They are not emotional. Gus is almost 100% Norwegian but he does have a little something else. That something else makes him emotional at times. (We never discover what that “little something else” is. Perhaps Swedish? Or Danish?)

The focus shifts between Olive with the hitmen in their office and Olive and Betty in the bar. Betty has apparently had a bit too much to drink, and she rails on and on not only about her ex-boyfriend but also about the Minnesota culture and weather.

Both Olive and Betty hate the weather but Betty cannot tolerate the way the Minnesotans have adapted to it. She is astounded that they weatherproof their babies at birth to withstand the cold. If you come to Minnesota as an adult, she laments, you are out of luck. Your heart freezes and you become evil.

She can’t believe how they only offer driver’s education classes in the winter and make you learn to drive on frozen rivers. And they wear those perpetually colorful snowsuits. And they actually stop in the dead of winter to help a stranger change a flat tire!

And the people give lots of money to foster the arts. Why? Gus tells her that if they didn’t, Minneapolis would be like Omaha, only farther north.

And Minnesotans take something called hotdish to their potlucks. What is a hotdish? With ill-concealed disgust, she explains that it is Stove Top and Cream of Mushroom soup topped with Tater Tots. Who are these people?

Although the play definitely has a plot (and who is killed in the end will not be revealed here), the appeal is in the continuous execution of one-liners, either ridiculing the Minnesotans for their passive acceptance of the subarctic winter temperatures, their puzzling social conscience and philanthropy, or making fun of the Norwegians for their calm, restrained, unexcitable temperament.

Artistic Director Robert McNamara brings you, as he says, “into the world of ‘Minnesota nice’ with its quaint Norwegian customs and its fusion of American Gothic played out as a Viking Western on the streets of downtown Minneapolis.”

This production offers theater goers an entertaining cultural experience. And we can fortunately look forward to more exciting Norwegian productions from Scena Theatre.

This article originally appeared in the April 17, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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Christine Foster Meloni

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.