By Areon Mobasher
On July 22, 2011, the people of Norway experienced two domestic terrorist attacks committed by Anders Behring Breivik. The first attack was a car bomb in Oslo, set off just outside the office of then-Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. The second attack was committed less than two hours later at a summer camp for youth members of the ruling leftist Labour Party on the nearby island of Utøya. These attacks killed 77 people and injured more than 300. Breivik claimed these murders were a “preventative strike” and “an act of self-defense” for his country. Many of the victims were teenagers.
Most Norwegians had never seen an attack this deadly in their lifetime. Surveys reported that nearly one in every four Norwegians knew someone who was affected.
Enter Little Green Pig’s Norway, a series of vignettes telling the stories of 17 people who have some connection to those lost in the attacks. These characters are the product of a one-year collaborative creative process led and solidified by director Jaybird O’Berski and the cast.
I firmly believe that every story, and specifically every play, has one central question that it seeks to answer, a problem that it wants to solve. Little Green Pig poses this question in the prompt on which the cast based the construction of their characters:
“How do we grieve and keep going after unimaginable tragedy?”
In each scene, and with each character, Norway presents a different answer to that question. Little Green Pig’s company members have masterfully created characters who are distinct, nuanced, and occasionally controversial, all desperate for any kind of healing or connection, whether they realize it or not. We see fully developed (not to be conflated with “well adjusted”) people with a myriad of experiences and relationships.
It is the familiar, vulnerable nature of each actor’s clear and coherent performance that empowers the group in several key ensemble scenes, ranging from a group karaoke number to an assembly of women sharing their grievances with a potential government representative. These actors are living truthfully in their circumstances, responsive to and aware of each other in a way that perhaps only this production and its year-long improvisational creative process could have accomplished.
The site-based/site-specific theater environment of Norway plays just as great a role in the production as any of its actors. O’Berski’s decision to set the play outside, in various local parks, puts the audience in a similar kind of environment to the victims of the 2011 shooting. What seems at first glance to be a wholesome campground becomes sobering at the reminder that this is, in fact, a graveyard. The decision to make the playing space circular and to seat the audience at its periphery renders the audience as its own support group, round table, or drum circle.
Norway is not without some pressure points. Several exchanges feel overly expository, with characters conveniently reminding each other of their backstory and what led them to this moment. While this is a common byproduct of improvised and devised work to establish context, I would have rather seen some of this material condensed or reappropriated for other scenes. Similarly, there are a few exchanges and jokes that unnecessarily remind the audience that, “Yes, we are definitely in Norway, and we are All Norwegian, in case you forgot.” The audience doesn’t really need a reminder, and one joke about Norwegians being unhappy felt fabricated and frankly too American.
But why this play? Why this tragedy? Why here? Why not center this play on one of the numerous mass shootings that have occurred on American soil over the past twenty years? Or, while we’re at it, even just the past two?
Because, for the people of Norway, this was new. The play could not have been devised in the way that it was had this been set in the United States, at least not in the present day. Because mass shootings are all too commonplace in the United States, we would not be affected now the same way our Norwegian counterparts were in 2011. Through this strategic displacement, we are reminded of just how pervasive that horror is within our own borders.
The characters of Norway respond to their circumstances by seeking a cure or a quick fix. Some turn to isolation, others to sex, some to cynicism, and others to community. Subsequently, the interactions can be tragic, hilarious, or even awkward, but they are always vulnerable, clear, and inviting. There is a tenderness to this play that feels, in a word, spiritual, almost churchlike. It’s a truly shared experience, be that the sharing of laughter or tears.
But as to the initial question posed by the play about moving on after the unimaginable happens, Norway presents an array of answers, but not necessarily solutions. It doesn’t need to. In fact, that is the humanity of Norway, a sobering reminder that it’s on us, and only us, to make life better for ourselves and the people who will be here when we are gone.
Norway runs through May 18th at Duke Park in Durham. For more information of $0 tickets, visit https://www.littlegreenpig.com/now-playing/2019/5/2/norway.