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The Baroness

I love a joke, I love the humorous. The name Isak means "laughter." I often think that what we most need is a great humorist.
—Baroness Karen Christentze Blixon-Finecke a/k/a Isak Dinesen, interviewed by Eugene Walter in The Paris Review, Issue 14, Autumn 1956
Dee Pelletier
Danish writer Isak Dinesen, whose career was contemporaneous with that of Ernest Hemingway, claimed she acquired a genius for storytelling by bargaining with the devil. Her immortal soul, she said, was a reasonable price to pay to write timeless, insightful tales such as "Babette's Feast."

Whether or not Lucifer had any hand in the matter, Dinesen — in private life, Baroness Karen Christentze Blixon-Finecke — commanded a wide readership during her life and for many years after. The popularity of her early books, especially Seven Gothic Tales (1934), plus her eccentricity (evident in magazine features and book jacket photographs), made Dinesen an object of fascination on both sides of the Atlantic. During her single sojourn in the United States, she famously socialized with celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller, and Carson McCullers.

When told he was receiving the 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature, Hemingway remarked, "I would have been happy — happier — today if the prize had been given to that beautiful writer Isak Dinesen." Five years later, a majority of the Nobel Prize committee supported her as recipient of the award for literature; but that vote was overruled on the ground that too many Scandinavians — four times as many as writers from other regions of the world — had received the award. Dinesen died without becoming a Nobel laureate.

Nowadays Dinesen is best remembered as the expatriate coffee rancher played by Meryl Streep in Out of Africa. That 1985 film depicts Dinesen's years in Kenya, before she returned to her homeland and commenced a literary career. Thor Bjorn Krebs' new play The Baroness: Isak Dinesen's Final Affair (translated by Kim Dambaek), now in production by the Scandinavian American Theater Company, concerns a much later period, when Dinesen was a grand dame of letters, holding court at Rungstedlund, the country house, located between Copenhagen and Elsinore, which she inherited from her parents.

In The Baroness, Dinesen (Dee Pelletier), somewhere beyond age 60, cultivates the affection of Thorkild Bjornvig (Conrad Ardelius), a weak-willed poet, many years her junior. With blandishments about his talent and virility, she secures his puppyish devotion, When Bjornvig suffers a concussion she lures him to Rungstedlund, ostensibly for convalescence free of domestic responsibilities to Grete, his wife, and their infant.

"Grete shouldn't have to look after both you and the baby," Dinesen tells Bjornvig (as though she were seriously concerned about his wife's welfare). "You shouldn't be burdened with a child. That way you'll never start writing again."

In thrall to his celebrated patron, Bjornvig lingers at Rungstedlund for months. The two swear a "pact" of friendly devotion but, under the influence of neurosis and strong drink, Dinesen becomes increasingly controlling and their sexless relationship becomes more sadomasochistic than friendly.

"The Baroness cast a spell on me," Bjornvig tells Benedicte (Vanessa Johansson), the wife of his publisher and the third vertex of the emotional triangle of The Baroness.

Dinesen's late-life relations with a circle of acolytes are well documented; and, after her death, Bjornvig (probably the most prominent of her hangers-on) wrote a lurid memoir, The Pact: My Friendship with Isak Dinesen. That stormy friendship is chronicled in detail, though with greater delicacy, by Judith Thurman in the fine biography, Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller.

In a program note, Krebs describes The Baroness as a "free interpretation" of Dinesen and Bjornvig's "actual relationship. . . inspired by anecdotes, letters and books by and about" them. In fairness to the subjects (neither still around to speak in self-defense), the play is a highly speculative "pathography" that's long on bad behavior and skimpy in character development. Krebs depicts Dinesen as a manipulative sorceress — and, indeed, she sometimes spoke of dealings with the occult (that bargain with the devil, for instance). The playwright has simplified and sanitized Bjornvig by eliminating sordid historical details; and he makes the young poet so pusillanimous that he's little more than a cipher.

Under the direction of Henning Hegland, the production's three actors make the most of the flat characters they've been given. Johansson has ample stage presence, though few scenes to perform and little to do when she's on stage. Despite his character's fecklessness, Ardelius holds his own against the overheated arias that Krebs has written for Dinesen. When Ardelius strips to the waist to pose for Dinesen, it's tempting to conclude that he's been cast as much for his physique (which Dinesen admires extravagantly) as for his craft.

Pelletier bears far more of the weight of Krebs' heavy-handed drama than her compatriots. Thanks to make-up and studied expressions, she offers a fair facsimile of Dinesen's appearance.

Two seasons ago, Pelletier was memorable in the smaller, though choice, role of an aging school mistress in The Mint Theater's fine production of Women without Men. As Dinesen, she has to contend with a script that keeps her on stage for most of the evening but gives her few changes to ring. Her solution is a feat of actorly technique: As the play advances and her character's physical health and mental state become increasingly delicate, Pelletier appears to deteriorate. It's intriguing to watch how her posture remains proud as her face becomes spookier and her figure melts from slender to emaciated to little more than a shadow.

Scenic designer Akiko Nishijima Rotch gives The Baroness a highfalutin sheen. His handsome set is a colossal allusion to Piet Mondrian's neoplastic abstract paintings. Arriving in The Clurman Theatre, the audience encounters a stage with vast panels of black and white crosshatching. All the play's scenes, with their various locations, are played against this backdrop but, with help from lighting designer Miriam Crowe, primary colors are added as Bjornvig begins to revolt against Dinesen's controlling ways. It's a striking, if superfluous, visual reference to a contemporary of Dinesen's in the European art world.

When The Baroness premiered at the Folketeatret in Copenhagan five years ago, it was nominated for Denmark's Reumert Award as Play of the Year. It's clear why Krebs saw dramatic potential in the turbulent private lives of these artists, as well as what motivates the Danish Arts Foundation and Consulate General of Denmark to sponsor a play that may bring a Dane of Dinesen's artistic stature to the attention of new audiences. But the tale of obsession Krebs has fabricated from odds and ends of the historical record isn't likely to send playgoers in search of Dinesen's literary works. Bereft of the elegance, humor, and suspense that characterize the Baroness's own fiction, Krebs' drama offers only a couple of scenes of engaging dialogue before devolving into ponderous chatter about sad, ugly events.

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The Baroness: Isak Dinesen's Final Affair
By Thor Bjorn Krebs
Director: Henning Hegland
Cast: Conrad Ardelius (Thorkild Bjornvig); Vanessa Johansson (Benedicte); Dee Pelletier (Karen Blixen)
Set Designer: Akiko Nishijima Rotch
Lighting Designer: Miriam Nilofa Crowe
Costume Designer: Stine Martinsen
Sound Designer: Amy Altadonna
Stage Manager: Krystle Henninger
Running Time: Two hours with one intermission
Presented by Scandinavian American Theater Company
The Clurman Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street

From 9/2/17; opened 9/7/17; closing 9/24/17
Reviewed by Charles Wright at September 5th press performance

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