Luverne Seifert gives big bear hugs.
That may come as a surprise to Twin Cities theatergoers who have seen Seifert play a rogue’s gallery of villains over the past 25 years on stages small and large.
He found pure evil for the Children’s Theatre’s recent premiere of “The Last Firefly,” playing a stepfather who could freeze blood with his stare. That knack will be on display again starting Thursday, when Seifert plays one of two hit men hired by two Southern transplants to whack their ex-boyfriends in “The Norwegians,” a spoof of Scandinavian morés and Minnesota Nice, by Dark and Stormy Productions.
Even small roles become big when Seifert plays them, not only because he’s a baby-faced burly fellow. He makes his characters larger than life. He’s often compared to Jack Nicholson, for the parts he plays and for his ability to blend the tragic and comic.
“He tips so easily from the dark and scheming to the wondrous and joyous,” said director Michelle Hensley, founder of Ten Thousand Things Theater Company, who has worked with Seifert since 1994. “Luverne is a master of that quicksilver change.”
Touring with Hensley’s troupe to homeless shelters and jails, Seifert has slipped into the roiled psyche of Iago in “Othello” and under the skin of con man Professor Harold Hill in “The Music Man.” Wiliness and cunning may be his obvious strong suit, but he also has shown a playful side, as in “The 39 Steps” at the Guthrie in 2010.
In person, his demeanor is unfailingly open and sincere. Manning the stove at his home in St. Anthony, he’s almost unrecognizable.
“I suppose that’s a compliment — a compliment to my teachers and scene partners and all the people who helped me get here,” he said as he hovered over a sauté pan, preparing a lunch of mussels à la Marinière, a traditional French entree of shellfish in white wine.
That he makes his living as an actor and professor — he’s the head of the University of Minnesota’s undergrad theater program — is something of a happy surprise for Seifert.
He grew up in Sleepy Eye, a two-stoplight town in southwestern Minnesota whose most famous native is young-adult novelist Nicole Helget.
Seifert attended a one-room school until fifth grade.
“The big things in town were the Del Monte plant and farming,” he said. “In high school, I delivered pizza. I figured I’d do something like that” after graduation.
Instead, a classmate and a teacher proved influential. The classmate was going to college and told Seifert he should go, too. The teacher, David Metcalf, introduced him to the possibilities of theater and became a mentor.
His 1985 graduation from Augsburg College was a first for his family.
When not onstage, Seifert likes to spend time with his wife, Darcey Engen, a director and actor who runs Augsburg’s theater program, and their two sons, who are in college.
He’s the main cook for the family, a role he enjoys.
“Cooking is my way to relax,” said Seifert, who often uses these moments to go over lines in his head.
Rain was falling outside on a gray November day while he cooked, but Seifert beamed as he talked about his life.
He got his jones for the kitchen while acting at Theatre de la Jeune Lune in Minneapolis, the imaginative Franco-American company that won a Tony Award for regional theater before going belly up in 2008. He spent seven years with the company, building his muscles for tragedy and comedy and learning clowning as well as acting.
He auditioned for the company on the same day in the mid-1990s as noted performer Sarah Agnew, who became a frequent scene partner.
“He’s one of the most considerate people you’ll meet,” she said. “He listens with such intensity. He’s the kind of person who may not say anything for a while but when he finally chimes in, his ideas are strong and right.”
Theater artists are known for having strong egos. “Not Luverne,” Agnew said. “In fact, we give him a hard time about taking credit or sharing good news. He founded a theater company, and he doesn’t even claim that. He says that he’s like a manager or arranger or something.”
Seifert and his wife founded Sod House Theatre a few years ago. The company takes professional productions to ballrooms and community centers in outstate Minnesota. Its first show was Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” whose themes about a family losing its property resonated in farm country. Seifert and Engen also have put together vaudeville-style entertainments, drawing on his colleagues and enlisting the likes of Jim Lichtscheidl and Nathan Keepers for shows.
“It’s our way of giving back,” he said. “You never know who you’re going to reach or touch.”
“The Norwegians,” by C. Denby Swanson, is being staged by Joel Sass for Dark and Stormy as holiday counterprogramming. Company founder Sara Marsh, who plays one of the ex-girlfriends in the show, first acted with Seifert four years ago in “A Behanding in Spokane.” Marsh played a hostage chained to a radiator in a hotel. Seifert was the concierge.
“His character came in and investigated our situation but didn’t uncuff us,” Marsh said. “We were in a situation where time was running out and it involved a candle stuck in a gas can. You were not quite sure if he was a good guy or bad guy. He’s great at walking that line because he’s so charming and so sweet but can turn on a dime and be so scary.”
Audiences will get a chance to see that in “The Norwegians.”
“I’m an assassin, but I’m very nice,” he said.
Either way, you’re dead.