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Theatre in Review: The Baroness: Isak Dinesen's Final Affair

Conrad Ardelius, Dee Pelletier. Photo: Ellinor DiLorenzo.

The writer Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen), arguably best known for the book Seven Gothic Tales, gets the gothic treatment herself in Thor Bjørn Krebs' biographical drama --- produced by the Scandinavian American Theatre Company at Theatre Row -- a steamy tale of repressed literary-world passions that, throughout, teeters on the edge of self-parody. The affair of the title involved Thorkild Bjørnvig, a noted Danish poet, and, for various reasons, it was entirely a romance of the mind. (It is documented in Bjørnvig's memoir, titled The Pact, which doesn't appear to be currently in print.) This doesn't stop The Baroness from being a bizarre hybrid of highfalutin book chat, gossipy revelations, and sexual intrigues. It isn't good, but it certainly is a camp.

Bjørnvig is a promising young poet who shows up at one of Dinesen's cocktail parties, eager to meet Denmark's most prominent author. He confesses his nervousness to a young female guest, who coolly notes that their hostess is a real handful: "As soon as she meets you, you'll have a string tied to your wrist. Everyone has strings tied to their wrists when they get close to her. Strings tied at our hands and at the top of our heads. And then the Baroness casually pulls the strings. We each have our part to play in her marionette theatre." Well, you can't say he wasn't warned.

Soon, Bjørnvig is having a little tête-à-tête with his heroine, who calls him "The Doctor" and is prone to saying things like, "We are intimate souls, you and I," while noting, appraisingly, "You've been blessed with an athlete's body." Using a combination of cocktails and flattery, Blixen convinces the young writer to abandon his wife and baby son in order to concentrate on his writing -- in guest rooms on her estate. It's a sort of one-man Yaddo, and Bjørnvig, paralyzed by the success of his first book and unclear what to do for an encore, is happy to take advantage -- even when Blixen ruffles his hair and says things like, "My people on the farm called me The Lioness. Now I have a little lion cub." In a moment that should set alarm bells ringing, Bjørnvig confesses to having recently suffered a head injury that prevents him from concentrating on his work -- but Blixen already knows all about it: "I had been thinking about you and about what you told me and wrote in your letters -- about all your doubt and difficulties in writing. And I thought, The Doctor wants to be an artist, but his mind is caught up in the ordinary. He does not know how to take wing, to fly. So, I cast a spell. I hit the table hard with my hand and hoped that that blow would hit you. I obviously struck slightly too hard. I do apologize."

Instead of immediately catching the next bus to Copenhagen, Bjørnvig signs up to become a full-time acolyte, posing half-naked for one of Blixen's drawings, taking part in moon-worshipping ceremonies, and submitting to her amateur attempts at psychoanalysis, which mostly consist of her urging him to dump his family for good. Soon, he is penning verses ("She saw the firm male full of godlike wonder/Above her and she spilled over with lust from/Her lips to the slender heels ploughing the sand") that sound exactly like what might happen if Harlequin Romances ever opened a poetry division.

Quite apart from the three-decade age difference between the two, a physical affair can't happen, thanks to Blixen's array of infirmities, many of them connected either to the syphilis she picked up from her late husband or the toxic effects of the treatment for same. ("There's more mercury in my tiny body than in all the collected thermometers of Denmark," she laments.) For a while, Bjørnvig seems to enjoy these intense psychological games, even when Blixen promises to assemble for him a harem filled with lovelies ready to do his sexual bidding. But when he chooses a mistress from their circle of literary friends -- without consulting her -- Blixen balks, and the affair -- such as it is -- barrels toward the inevitable breakup.

Written, directed (by Henning Hegland), and performed with studied artificiality, The Baroness is weighed down by loads of pretentious dialogue and an inability to render its central situation in any kind of believable way. Krebs -- the stilted translation is by Kim Dambœk -- appears to have made up very little, but, by the time Blixen is running around in a Pierrot outfit, brandishing a knife, the play threatens to become the kind of wild melodrama Hollywood once built around aging lady stars. In the title role, Dee Pelletier is something to see: Clad in dresses that appear to be filched from the closet of Rebecca's Mrs. Danvers, her face burnished by makeup to an alabaster white, an arm extended at an angle that defies the laws of geometry (with a cigarette poised between two fingers), she swans about, delivering her lines as if handing down pronouncements from some writer's Olympus. At times, she reminds one of Glenn Close in some of her more unhinged moments as Norma Desmond -- which, oddly, may be appropriate, since The Baroness often plays like a literary Sunset Boulevard. Pelletier is a fine actress, and her excesses here are surely in the service of her director and the script. At least she keeps things lively, as opposed to Conrad Ardelius, whose Bjørnvig is a doltish and largely passive male ingenue. It's hard to believe that he could keep a diary, let alone set the Danish literary world on fire. (Ardelius is a new face, and this role offers little opportunity for judging his skill.) As Mrs. Knut Hamsun, who'd like to take a hands-on approach to helping Bjørnvig with his writer's block, Vanessa Johansson has one amusing scene, in which she points out that Blixen's anguished confession of the heartbreak of syphilis is actually a polished routine that she performs for all her young followers.

The set, by Akiko Nishijima Rotch, places a few pieces of furniture against a black-and-white art deco drop that, bit by bit, is transformed when panels are stripped away to reveal blocks of primary colors. If the reason for this remains obscure, it's no more affected than anything else in the production. Miriam Nilofa Crowe's lighting skillfully uses a variety of color washes to change moods and time frames, and Amy Altadonna's apt sound design includes the murmur of voices at a party, birdsong, and several classical selections, many of them heard during a silly ongoing battle between Blixen and Bjørnvig about the correct way of using a phonograph needle. (Altadonna also provides solid reinforcement for Aleksi Ranta's original music, which benefits from attractive piano-and-strings arrangements.) The costumes, by Stine Martinsen, based on a production of the play at the Folketeatret in Denmark, are suitable to each character; they certainly reflect Blixen's own highly eccentric style.

It can't be easy to build a drama around a character as singular as Dinesen; a quarter century ago, Julie Harris struggled similarly in the solo drama Lucifer's Child. (The much younger woman depicted in the film Out of Africa has little to do with the older self depicted here.) In this case, either Krebs has fumbled the job or something crucial has been lost in translation. There is little doubt that The Baroness aims high, but the result might be more accurately named Whatever Happened to Karen Blixen? -- David Barbour

(11 September 2017)

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