No one can say the Austin theatre community didn’t get into the Halloween spirit this year. I saw five local stage productions this October and all but one of them directly involved a murderer (more often murderers) of some kind. What is it about this time of year that lets us get away with this? Sure, the macabre can be appreciated year round, but nothing makes horror shine through its self-formed miasma of death and fear than October. Perhaps it’s a matter of exposure. We allow ourselves this annual allotment of visual morbid curiosity to fulfill a need within our minds much like we receive from plays, films, and novels of other genres. This contact allows us the opportunity to experience horrid events without fully giving ourselves over to the shadows. You can still enjoy disturbing entertainment and be a delightful individual. For example, the last show I am reviewing from October revolves around two professional assassins with little to no remorse about those they kill who are also the kindest men you’ll ever meet.
The Norwegians follows Olive, recently jilted by her now ex-boyfriend, as she seeks the services of the titular Norwegians from Minnesota, the nicest pair of hitmen the world has ever known.
Normally I like to review a production by discussing individual elements one at a time, but for reasons that will soon become apparent to you I feel it would be better to discuss The Norwegians by each act rather than a whole.
With the stage divided into two small sets separated by snow painted upon the ground, the first act of The Norwegians structures itself by tossing our protagonist, Olive (Claire Grasso), back and forth between two scenes, each transition effectively accompanied by a shifting of lights and the thematically appropriate sounds of a gust of wind through the Minnesotan snows as characters freeze in place until Olive returns to them. Mike Toner’s set dedicates stage-right to the cabin of Tor and Gus (Michael Stuart and J. Ben Wolfe respectively) as they explain the implications of assassinating Olive’s ex with her as well as what it means to be Norwegian, while stage-left shows the corner of an Italian restaurant as Olive discusses her hatred of her ex with her new friend Betty (Boni Hester). Both sets are sparse and intimate, allowing the characters in each room to maintain the focus of the scenes.
That being said, I often found myself not engaged in the scenes. The frequently reiterated friendliness of the Norwegians took over Stuart and Wolfe’s performances, offering little else to their scenes than the comic relief of such kind, gentile individuals discussing professional murder. Hester was a welcome addition to the cast who artfully walked the line between friendly and sinister while speaking of murder and loves lost. However, I found myself unable to invest in Grasso’s character at all. This was in part due to the way in which Olive was written, but Grasso rarely showed believable concern over her choice to end another person’s life. I just didn’t find her sympathetic. Furthermore, there was an energy behind her voice which worked well for some sequences, but not for most. By the intermission I felt I had a firm grasp of my thoughts on The Norwegians.
Then the second act started.
Suddenly the characters had a sense of agency and concern about them as the plot forced them to break free of the forms they maintained in act I. It started on a high note with a humorous monologue by Hester directed at the audience. Wolfe and Stuart, now not devoted entirely to appearing friendly, were both relatable in their struggles and sinister in their actions. Furthermore, playwright C. Denby Swanson and director Lara Toner Haddock took the opportunities to create surreal, dreamlike sequences, foreshadowed near the end of act I by a brief, unexpected moment which heavily incorporated sound and light to create a warped vibe (a moment which Swanson and Haddock stated, during a talk back after the performance, to be the precursor or warm up for the audience to prepare themselves for the shift in act II). Through these ethereal moments, as well as those grounded in reality, Don Day’s lighting and Joel Mercado-See’s sound design truly stepped up to create an atmospheric experience whether we were drinking in a cabin, traversing the snow, or within a character’s mind. There was one extended dream sequence that one might think of as “the ballet” that, while intriguing in its visuals, promptly halted the narrative for a few moments that seemed unwarranted. Toner’s set was still present, but mostly abandoned for the openness offered by the downstage snowfield. The former locations were still utilized sparingly, but the convergence of characters and plots demanded a space that allowed more room for everyone to interact with one another. The only aspect of act I which did not improve much in act II was Grasso’s performance in which I still could not become invested or sympathetic. It wasn’t just that she blissfully ignored the ramifications of her actions that bothered me, rather that her reactions to other characters felt discordant with the rest of the production, as if she were somewhere else. All in all, the cast and crews shift from the first act amounted to a significantly more engaging second act with an honestly chilling conclusion.
This production requires some warming up, but once it gets going it’s truly engaging. The Norwegians is at once delightful and dark, and will leave you fearful of all the friendly people you’ll find in the snow. The Nowegians ran for 10 performance October 23-November 7 2015.