|L-R: Vanessa Johansson, Dee Pelletier, and Conrad Ardelius in THE BARONESS - ISAK DINESEN'S FINAL AFFAIR. Photo by Elinor DiLorenzo.|
Scandinavian American Theater Company (SATC) was founded in 2009 to present contemporary plays by Scandinavian playwrights and, in its first seven seasons, has staged twelve full scale productions and more than 37 readings. Its latest full scale production, The Baroness – Isak Dinesen’s Final Affair is by the Danish playwright Thor Bjorn Krebs and has been translated by Kim Damboek. It is currently being staged at The Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row on West 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan and it is a real knockout.
In 1948, the then 62-year-old Karen Blixen (Lee Pelletier) - better known under her pen name Isak Dinesen and as the author of Out of Africa and Babette’s Feast – was introduced to the up-and-coming handsome Danish poet Thorkid Bjornvig (Conrad Ardelius) by his publisher’s wife, Benedicte (Vanessa Johansson). The Baroness Blixen, we quickly learn, is something of a cougar (she might prefer the term “lioness”) but of a more than eccentric sort and with a rather vicious streak: in the course of her platonic but otherwise increasingly intimate relationship with Bjornvig, she manages to destroy both his marriage to Greta and his love affair with Benedicte and contributes to the dissolution of Benedicte’s marriage as well.
To be sure, before encountering Bjornvig, the Baroness had had an unusual and far from easy life, her father having committed suicide when she was not yet ten years old. When her first love for Hans Blixen-Fineckes was unrequited, she settled for an engagement to his twin brother, Bror, following him to Kenya where they married. Bror’s infidelity led to their divorce but not before the Baroness had contracted syphilis from him, a condition for which she was treated for years with mercury and arsenic.
The net result of all this was that the Baroness returned to Denmark; eschewed the institution of marriage; forewent further sexual relations; fancied herself a witch, who had to drink children’s blood and who was capable of casting spells; claimed to have made a pact with Lucifer; perceived herself as a “lioness” who “seduced” a string of young men (her “cubs”), the last of whom was Bjornvig; and may, indeed, have been a bit mad. But sane or not, witch or not, and devil-disciple or not, there can be little doubt that the Baroness was sadistically selfish, employing her commitment to literary freedom and creativity as a tortured rationalization for her own aberrant and eccentric behavior.
The play is presented from Bjornvig’s perspective and Ardelius performs splendidly as the malleable, conventional, submissive “cub,” so in awe of the Baroness and so eager to release his creativity and achieve literary success for himself that he is willing to sacrifice his wife, friends and family, embrace infidelity, and forego love, if that’s what the Baroness contends it will take for him to attain his goal. Johansson, too, is excellent as Benedicte - charming, sensual, insightful and empathetic, but, ultimately, just another sacrificial pawn in the Baroness’ evil game.
Good as Ardelius and Johansson are in their respective roles, however (and they are good!), it is Pelletier who really steals the show, succeeding in conveying in her bravura performance just how brilliantly creative and obsessively committed to literature the Baroness was, while simultaneously displaying just how evil, sadistically manipulative and, yes, possibly mad, she really was as well.