This review of The Baroness: Isak Dinesen's Final Affair at The Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row was written by written by Christopher M. Struck and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
The Baroness: Isak Dinesen's Final Affair
Written by Thor Bjorn Krebs
Translated by Kim Damboek
Directed by Henning Hegland
Music by Aleksi Ranta
Set Design by Akiko Nishijima Rotch
Lighting Design by Miriam Crowe
Sound Design by Amy Altadonna
Costume Design by Stine Martinsen
The Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street
New York, New York 10036
The Baroness captures an eerie intensity through the strange relationship between the young, Thorkild Bjørnvig, and the famous, Baroness Karen Blixen (known in the United States by the pseudonym Isak Dinesen), who takes a special interest in his "career." The tale takes place in Denmark where the young doctor, Thorkild, has just garnered national fame as the country's latest acclaimed writer. Upon hearing of the young man, The Baroness swoops in "to claim him." The two had a prolonged relationship between 1948 and 1955 that the playwright, Thor Bjorn Krebs, reconstructed for dramatic appeal using notes from the time period.
Just off the publication of Stjoernen bag Gavlen, a collection of poems, in 1947, Thorkild (played by Conrad Ardelius) was living a life that seemed perfect. He has financial support from a benefactor, has just married, and has a young child. There is just one major problem. He can't write. This is incredibly common. As a writer, I've read or come across accounts of other writers who have to learn to overcome the new struggle to create. When once they might have relied on the "wind in their sails," many writers find it difficult to hunker down and repeat their performance especially under the pressure of expectations. In comes Karen Blixen using this opportunity to insert herself in the young doctor's life. Sometimes I felt that this wasn't very relatable and that the structure of the dialogue did not work to draw you in, but there were a number of positives to the performance including Dee Pelletier who made an astounding Karen Blixen.
Blixen (at 62) approaches the much younger Thorkild (29) with an enticing offer. She will help him to write. The offer does not seem at all innocent. Blixen requires Thorkild to join her at her home,Rumgstedlund, alone, leaving behind his young family. Thorkild accepts, hoping the isolation will prove helpful. As the "affair" commences, Thorkild treads through it with so much naivete (or perhaps hesitancy) that the relationship is never consummated. Blixen requires him to swear a pact to her in friendship by giving him a ceremonial African dagger. With every scene change, she questions his loyalty, and he listens and listens. He goes through all the motions, but he fails to write little more than one sexually-laced poem about lust.
It's not really a surprise that sex is the subject matter. Blixen describes things like putting a record on as if it is a sensual caress. She also often claims she will find the gorgeous young doctor a harem to unleash the desire that led him to write Gavlen. She'll present them in a bouquet, she says. The closest she comes, however, is giving him an actual bouquet of flowers in the colors of the women she describes. Complicating things is the young wife of Thorkild's benefactor, Benedicte (Vanessa Johansson). Benedicte fits the mold of the women Thorkild is interested in, and when Blixen eventually pushes Thorkild away to Bonn, Germany for a literary escapade, Benedicte goes to see him. Passion envelopes them, and Thorkild begins to sever the ties of his old relationships, including his wife. He takes refuge in a summer home his benefactor had bought before the affair.
This time it is Blixen who follows the young Thorkild who has finally succeeded in writing again. Blixen confronts him about the pact, and at first, Thorkild seems like he has been won over by Blixen's statements of passion, loyalty, and friendship. When she claims they must seal their pact in blood, Thorkild finally rejects her. Blixen, entranced by voodoo, sees a black adder on the threshold of the door. She takes it as a token of esteem, but Thorkild writes that it is an ill omen. The two break their bond, and Thorkild would go on to write multiple collections of poems throughout the rest of his life. Blixen would publish Last Tales in 1957, which include four stories that seem to relate to their friendship.
The performance of the play was good and left little to be desired. The set design and lighting helped to showcase an intimate, reflective look at the creative process through this striking production about one of literature's key figures. Many aspects of this play were revealing and powerful, especially regarding the creative process which Blixen states, in the play, "takes courage." There did seem to be a minor disconnect between the audience and the play. I feel this was mainly due to an over-reliance on the audience having a prior understanding of who the two characters were, especially Baroness Blixen. As an internationally famous Dutch author who died in 1962, Blixen lived flamboyantly, often wearing lavish outfits. She was best known for Out Of Africa, written about her life in Kenya, which was made into an Academy-Award winning motion picture. I'd recommend this play to anyone interested in the creative process. Tickets can be purchased for $47.50 at https://www.satcnyc.org/thebaroness