Baroness Karen Christenze von Blixen-Finecke (Isak Dinesen, 1885 –1962), was a Danish author who wrote in Danish and English. She’s best known for Seven Gothic Tales and Out of Africa, the latter an account of her life on a coffee farm in Kenya. Rejected by his brother, Blixen married Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke, a bounder. When they moved to Kenya for financial reasons, Bror-Blixen abandoned his wife leaving her with syphilis and management of the farm. According to records, a visit back home cured the disease. She continued to suffer from health issues thought to be attributable to ingesting extensive mercury.
Both Karen Blixen: Left, courtesy of Spincycle Public Relations and the Company; Right, Wikipedia
Blixen wrote her first books (becoming Isak Dinesen) in Africa, which she loved. Her affair with hunter/guide Denys Fitch Hatten was made into the popular film, Out of Africa, with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. Despite her complete devotion, the plantation eventually failed and the author moved back to Denmark. She continued to write, her work receiving increased international recognition.
The Baroness is fabricated, but a seven year relationship with the poet (here condensed) occurred. Its peripheral history is accurate, its integral quotes actual.
We meet the imposing 63 year-old author (Dee Pelletier), at her family manse. She’s contrived to have a handsome 29 year-old poet and magazine editor, Thorkild Bjornvig (Conrad Ardelius), invited to one of her celebrated parties. A naïve country boy with a wife and child, he is, despite a flurry of success, floored by her recognition. “Finally we meet the youthful talent,” purrs Blixen, “and behold the body behind his work.” Imagine a spider circling her victim prior to kill. She praises the young man and insists he write her biography.
Conrad Ardelius and Dee Pelletier
In order to be spiritually true to craft and sufficiently commune with his subject, the Baroness stipulates that Bjornvig move in. “When on a quest for The Holy Grail, it’s best not to bring a pram.” He leaves his family. She quickly dispenses with the book idea. Instead, Blixen will foster seminal work of which he’s capable by becoming the poet’s mentor, his muse. Alternating between potent seduction, bullying, and mockery, she mesmerizes Bjornvig, openly declaring herself a witch.
Confusion and objections halfheartedly spurt but are squelched. Minimal physical touch is a glaring omission. Blixen is confident, sensuous, and verbally provocative. She would take every opportunity to lay hands on the hunk. An early, blatant example of this is the Baroness dramatically declaring she’ll wrap him in her shawl and then inexplicably not doing so.
When syphilis is tapped for sympathy, Blixen teases that she’ll acquire a harem for her charge. Uncertainty about whether it’s safe for her to have sex pervades much of the piece. Having discovered during my research that she was no longer infected, I can’t help but wonder why the playwright didn’t imply other reasons she might abstain.
Vanessa Johansson, Dee Pelletier, and Conrad Ardelius
The first concubine she suggests is Benedicte (Vanessa Johansson), wife of the poet’s patron and Blixen’s publisher. (The young woman has her own agenda.) Bjornvig is morally appalled but, like his proposed lover, clearly attracted.
A roller coaster ride ensues. Work is generated, philosophy espoused, loyalties challenged, lives changed. Survival takes an appreciable toll. There’s an African knife, a worshipped moon, disrobed modeling (incomprehensibly only the shirt).
Playwright Thor Bjorn Krebs has written a compelling, if lead-driven play. Blixen is consistently intriguing, the story credible. History is deftly embedded rather than crammed in as exposition. Quotes are organically integrated. Krebs’ interpretation of one of the author’s stories to fit his scenario is extremely clever. Though we don’t really need Bjornvig stepping out of action to narrate, it doesn’t unduly jar. Benedicte is, however, too weak a character to attract. She’s flippant and without substance. (It’s difficult to tell how much of this is writing and how much poor acting.)
One of the ugliest, most inappropriate Sets I’ve ever seen (Aleksi Ranta) affects everything on stage. Tightly tufted period furniture stands adrift in front of black, white and a single yellow rectangle emulating Mondrian-like patterned walls. Furniture and background are at war. As if this weren’t enough, in the course of the play, a white pillar is stripped to reveal red – indicating passion? – and a blue rectangle is exposed. If there’s meaning here, it’s completely obscure. (Blixen dressed as Pierrot without explanation must fit in to this puzzle somehow.)
In contrast Miriam Crowe’s Lighting Design is subtly just right. Stine Martinsen’s Costumes work well. The Baroness’s make-up might be less ghoulish.
Director Henning Hegland splendidly manifests his Baroness in all respects. Except for hands in his pockets, the poet grows on one, though observing more ambivalent feelings would help illuminate this character. Physicality is admirably specific – the Countess is feline or Medea-like, the poet athletic, awkward, staunch. On the minus side, watching Benedicte’s slow movement from one side of the stage to the other in a glaring red dress during a pivotal scene between Bjornvig and the Countess, provokes hugely questionable distraction.
Acting is a mixed bag. Vanessa Johansson is all surface. Conrad Ardelius’ performance ranges, an uneven state I attribute part to his director and part to one of them not having made resolutions about the poet’s real feelings.
Dee Pelletier’s embodiment of the Baroness is pithy. Her invaluable decisions about Blixen serve voice, posture, timing, and attitude creating an intense, cohesive woman. She oozes with predatory sophistication, flares and burns like a blow torch and erupts as if playing Shakespeare. Feigning illness is equally adroit, Pelletier’s delicate body crumbling with curiously apt brittleness.
Production Photos by Ellinor DiLorenzo
Opening: Conrad Ardelius and Dee Pelletier
Scandinavian American Theater Company presents
The Baroness- Isak Dinesen’s Final Affair by Thor Bjorn Krebs
Translated by Kim Dambcek
Directed by Henning Hegland
The Clurman Theatre/Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street
Through September 24, 2017