Thursday, September 7, 2017

62 (2017-2018): Review: THE BARONESS: ISAK DINESEN'S LAST AFFAIR (seen September 5, 2017)

"Out of Denmark"

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Biographical plays about famous writers and their ideas on and problems with writing rarely make great theatre, although they sometimes offer terrific opportunities for actors to portray iconic figures. Of course, there have been exceptions, usually because the subjects have had unusually fascinating lives or the playwright has found an exciting way to incorporate some of their writing into the script.

This is often true of one-person plays, such as those about Emily Dickinson, Truman Capote, and Mark Twain, especially when given life by master actors like Julie Harris, Robert Morse, and Hal Holbrook. The Baroness: Isak Dinesen’s Last Affair has three characters, two of them writers, but the play, lugubriously directed by Henning Hegland, defeats his actors’ attempt to make them live. And Dinesen's best writing is largely absent from the text.
Conrad Ardelius, Dee Pelletier. Photo: Ellinor DiLorenzo. 
The Baroness is Kim Dambæk’s translation of a 2011 Danish play by Thor Bjørn Krebs being given its American premiere under the auspices of the Scandinavian American Theater Company. In Copenhagen it won the equivalent of a Tony Award.

The title character, Karen Blixen (pen name Isak Dinesen), lived from 1885-1962, and was one of Denmark’s most internationally respected writers; her fame was even more widely spread posthumously via Academy Award-winning movie versions of her short story Babette’s Feast and her memoir Out of Africa; the latter was based on her life in Africa, where she ran a coffee plantation in Kenya with her husband, Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke, and had a love affair with a handsome British hunter, Denys Finch Hatton. That part of her life was far more dramatically appealing than the source material for The Baroness.
Conrad Ardelius, Dee Pellietier. Photo: Ellinor DiLorenzo.
Selected biographical details, including Blixen’s African experiences, are scattered throughout The Baroness, set between 1948 and 1955, much of it taking place at Blixen’s estate, Rungstedlund. For stage purposes, Akiko Nishijima Rotch has transformed the lovely place into a spare, mostly black and white environment of Mondrian-like geometric patterns. Here we watch the enactment of the six-year friendship pact between Karen (Dee Pelletier) and the handsome but rather staid young poet, Thorkild Bjørnvig (Conrad Ardelius), which began when she was 62 and he 29, shortly after his first successful book of poetry was published.

Karen is a seductive, elegantly dressed, dominating woman who invites the young writer to live with her so she can be his creative muse. A woman who has had amours with many literary men, she weaves a spider’s web of allure and hopefully stimulating ideas around the innocent Thorkild. She asks him to abandon the literary magazine he edits and even give up the patronage of the wealthy sponsor who covers his expenses, and with whose wife, Benedicte (Vanessa Johansson), Karen’s friend, he eventually begins a romance, to Karen’s dismay.
Dee Pelletier, Conrad Ardelius. Photo: Ellinor DiLorenzo.
The action is a loose amalgam of events in the Blixen- Bjørnvig affair, which Krebs admits is his “free interpretation” based on available documentation; it suggests that, for all of Karen’s preoccupation with sexual forces—she makes as much of the erotic imagery in Thorkild’s poetry as she does of his “athlete’s body,” which she sketches—they never bedded because she was suffering from syphilis, contracted from her loose-living husband, and a significant factor in her behavior; she suffers several painful attacks during the play.
Vanessa Johansson, Dee Pelletier, Conrad Ardelius. Photo: Ellinor DiLorenzo.
Thorkild, who leaves his wife and child to accept Karen’s muse-ship, experiences writer’s block, which allows her to attempt sparking his creative fire; he, in turn, awed by her eminence and magnetic personality, struggles to respond, and the characters go back and forth in working out their mutual needs. But the dialogue is wooden, the situations artificial, and the inspiration commonplace.
Conrad Ardelius, Dee Pelletier. Photo: Ellinor DiLorenzo.
Thorkild comes off more as an earnest cipher bewitched by Karen’s spell than a three-dimensional person. She, touting her witch’s powers, and dressed throughout the overlong first act in a black, high-necked gown with long, tight sleeves, her deep-set eyes encased in dark shadows, is now and then reminiscent of Gloria Swanson’s more egregious moments in Sunset Boulevard; she may not be mad but a hint of madness hovers.
Dee Pelletier. Photo: Ellinor DiLorenzo.
Designer Stine Martensen’s costumes, those actually used in the original production at Denmark’s Folketeatret, are more like low-budget allusions to Blixen’s high-fashion choices than what she would actually have worn. One wonders, though, why she doesn’t wear the baroness’s famous turbans, so ubiquitous in later photos of her, and which Blixen reportedly donned to hide the results of syphilis treatments on her hair.

Karen Blixen in her 60s was an unusual-looking woman, her skin wrinkled and her long face’s bone structure noticeably prominent. It would probably be impossible for any actress to replicate this, but Pelletier, much shorter than the original, has distinctive cheekbones of her own. The actress adopts various strategies to embody the Baroness, such as prowling about with feline grace (Blixen was called “The Lioness” by her Kenyan staff), an unconvincingly smoked cigarette held aloft, but the performance only occasionally goes deeper than its surface masking. Ardelius has the making of a solid leading man but his Thorkild is far too passive to be of much dramatic interest.

The Baroness doesn’t shed additional light on Isak Dinesen’s writing but it may prove of interest for those who wondered what became of her after Out of Africa. As theatre, it’s rather dull stuff and could use an African lion or two.


Clurman Theatre/Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St, NYC
Through September 24