By Beatrice Williams-Rude
The Baroness: Isak Dinesen’s Final Affair is showcasing a performance so dazzling as to bring to mind all the splendid actresses who played Amanda Wingfield. This is a tour de force for Dee Pelletier, who bears a striking resemblance to the baroness, Karen Blixen, whom she portrays.
The “Final Affair” takes place when the baroness is 62 and the protégé is 29. It is platonic.
As Thorkild Bjornvig, the handsome young poet, Conrad Ardelius does very well in what is an undefined and largely thankless role. Vanessa Johansson is utterly charming as Benedicte, the wife of the publisher and patron of the poet, who ultimately betrays her husband becomes the poet’s lover.
The play, by much-honored Danish writer Thor Bjorn Krebs, (translation by Kim Dambaek) dissects the relationship between the baroness, who regards herself as a lioness, and her protégé whom she regards as her cub. However, she also sees herself as a witch who must drink children’s blood to survive. We learn that Thorkild is the last of a series of protégés.
Blixen’s best known works here are Out of Africa, to which the character makes many references noting that her time there was the happiest in her life; and Babette’s Feast, both of which were movies. Much material in this play is drawn from Seven Gothic Tales. The “lion cub” recognizes the baroness as a character in one of the Tales, Pellegrina, the opera singer who lost her voice.
Henning Hegland, the astute director, notes: “Karen Blixen and Thorkild Bjornvig were the gateway to each other’s creativity.” However, Baroness Blixen is destructive in the extreme—“drinking children’s blood.” Her disastrous marriage, during which her husband shared his syphilis, soured her view of wedlock. She sets out to wreck her protégé’s marriage, and succeeds. (The most honorable and sympathetic character is the one we never see: Greta, the abandoned wife of the poet and mother of his child.)
The work is abstruse, the first act seemingly endless. Although there are verbal fireworks, there is little warmth. We are not drawn to the characters, none of whom is admirable. They evoke neither empathy nor sympathy.
The attractive set, by Akiko Nishijima Rotch, has a Mondrian look. The lovely, appropriate and evocative costumes are by Stine Martinsen. Effective lighting is by Miriam Nilofa Crowe. The glorious music choices bring credit to sound designer Amy Altadonna.
The work was produced by the Scandinavian American Theater Company, which is dedicated to providing Scandinavian perspectives to New York audiences including takes on contemporary plays as well as classics from Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Denmark, Greenland and the Faroe Islands.
Photos: Elinor DiLorenzo
The Baroness officially opens on Sept. 7 and plays through Sept. 24 at The Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West Forty-Second Street (between Ninth and Tenth Aves.) in Manhattan. It runs for two hours with a 10-minute intermission.