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Center Stage

Minnesota nice — and naughty

4/30/2014

In show business, there’s an ancient quip about a dying actor. Colleagues gather at his bedside, grieving, and, with his last words, he tries to reassure them.

“Dying is easy,” he groans. “Comedy is hard.” 

“The Norwegians” plays at Stoner Theater through May 4.

“The Norwegians” plays at Stoner Theater through May 4.

The story’s never been verified (some say Groucho Marx made it up), but there’s no disputing its moral. Comedy is quicksilver, easy to make a mess of. In Des Moines this season, the most memorable work has come in a tragic vein, like “The Crucible.” It’s a relief, then, to see Stagewest serve up an unapologetic screwball — and bring it off hilariously.

“The Norwegians” began as a 10-minute sketch worked up in a “Play-in-a-Day” festival, and, at full length, it retains the snap of a moment’s inspiration. It takes us to a Bizarro World version of Lake Woebegon. Here the Mafia’s Norwegian girl wants to off her ex, so she hires beefy and blonde God of “toonder,” Tor. Naturally he’s got a sketchy partner, the “half-breed” Gus, who’s Italian on his grandmother’s side, and the girl found her “hit person” by filching the number from the purse of another vindictive bitch — hey, none of that talk around here! We’re Minnesota nice! That goes even for beating someone’s brains in with a baseball bat.

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The “plot” plays Whack-a-mole among these four cartoonlike figures and takes time for crack-brained ethnology. Norwegians, we learn, “conserve the energy we might use for emotions and use it instead for heat.”

Likewise, the staging’s chock full of nuts, with wheeled chairs zipping between midnight at the mob hideout and Ladies’ Night at the local bar. At one point, a vibrator runs at full buzz across the floor, and we get a few minutes of standup comedy (with a laugh track), plus a video mash-up of “Gone With the Wind” and “Thelma & Louise.” The Stagewest set made these switcheroos easy, with little more than tables left and right. The costuming — the gangsters’ overalls especially — proved suitable to every pratfall.

Speaking of physical comedy, the standout was Marnie Strate as Olive, Miss Desperately Seeking To Snuff. She can erupt like a pixie ninja, even as she tanks up on elderberry wine.  Josh Vishnapu, as Tor, handles his Minnesota Nice cagily (something his slow-witted Chief in “Cuckoo’s Nest” could never do), only at the end unveiling a lover-boy agenda. Nobody, however, outshines Rebecca Scholtec in the relatively subdued role of Betty. She mopes, yet she’s goofy; she rants with such liveliness that, when she dropped out of character to play standup comic, I found the bit static by comparison. Scholtec’s delivery, though, never flagged, and I recalled her riotous turn, also at Stagewest, in the “The Little Dog Laughed.” For a talent like hers, comedy is easy. 

Overheard in the Lobby: On May 1 at 7:30 p.m., Civic Center of Des Moines will show the Trey McIntyre Project, a dance performance commissioned by, among others, Des Moines Performing Arts. CV

John Domini is Cityview’s “Play Mate” theater critic who pens our weekly Center Stage column. He is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.

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