“Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me a chance to do my best.” So says Danish writer Karen Blixen, better known by her pseudonym Isak Dinesen, in her collection of short stories Babette’s Feast and Other Anecdotes of Destiny. There is willful ambition in these words, a desire to live out the hunger at the heart of the artist. The Baroness, subtitled Isak Dinesen’s Final Affair, is a Scandinavian American Theater Company production written by Danish playwright Thor Bjørn Krebs, and the play cannot escape its famous protagonist’s obsession with her art. Directed by Henning Hegland, the play opens with Thorkild Bjørnvig (Conrad Ardelius) addressing the audience as the voice of Karen Blixen (Dee Pelletier) plays over him.
Bjørnvig is a 29-year-old, recently successful poet who appears to be foundering under the weight of his last work, and the 62-year-old Blixen welcomes Bjørnvig into her fold, creating a six-year-long pact with him during which she schools him on spontaneity and literary genius. But Blixen’s words in the beginning, taken from a collection of short stories titled Last Tales, are intimate and jarring; they sound more like a lover’s missive than a teacher’s lesson. It becomes immediately clear that a current of passion lies underneath. Krebs’ free-ranging interpretation of Bjørnvig and Blixen’s relationship is a charged, if occasionally uneven, treatment of ambition, love, literature and pain.
Bjørnvig begins the play as an athletic, almost adorable student to Blixen’s vastly more experienced, wry older woman. But the play has a male voice behind it, and he cannot suffer this gaze for long. Krebs eventually endows Bjørnvig with agency, albeit an embittered and incomplete agency; Bjørnvig’s eventual extrication and independence from Blixen bears the heavy imprint of his teacher. He can no longer write, or even live, without the modes and machinations that Blixen has wrought upon him. Blixen teasingly states early in the play that Bjørnvig must “learn to be conscious of the effect he has on women” and, somewhat provocatively, later asks him to take off his shirt and pose for a semi-nude drawing. Bjørnvig begins to represent something greater to Blixen—a promise of spontaneity and beauty, unpolluted by age and cynicism.
Their relationship is a strange beast: his ambition is encouraged, and later reined in, to suit Blixen’s desires. Hers is an intimate patronage, with soft touches and teasing conversations—but Bjørnvig possesses power over her as well. This plays out best in moments of intense emotion, where Krebs has wrought some fine dialogue. Both Bjørnvig and Blixen are wonderfully conscious of their words; even a misplaced “Hmm” can spark a battle. Their sexual chemistry is surprisingly palpable, and Hegland somehow imbues a sense of will-they-won’t-they into the narrative in spite of Blixen’s weltering temper, their age difference and their continual clash of egos.
Pelletier gives Blixen an elegantly aged feel—her slow gait across the stage is in choreographed contrast to Ardelius’s fastidious, self-conscious walk. Ardelius seems like a near-perfect embodiment of Bjørnvig; necessarily athletic, conflicted and above all, impressionable. But Ardelius’ presence dips slightly towards the end, when the highest conflict is meant to play out between Bjørnvig and Blixen, which threatens the resolution of Bjørnvig’s storyline and makes for a slightly uneven ending. He is rescued now and then by a surge of energy from Pelletier, or Vanessa Johansson, the only other actor in the play, who portrays Benedicte, the wife of one of Bjørnvig’s friends.
The original music by Aleksi Ranta is swelling and cinematic. On occasion it gives the action more significance and nostalgia than the scene commands. The set by Akiko Nishijima Rotch is simple, with thin wooden pillars announcing rooms and seemingly random bursts of geometric color on the walls. But perhaps that is the point—can a higher appreciation for art or literature be achieved by a cathartic worship? When Blixen insists that Bjørnvig bow to the moon, something of the supernatural overtakes him—he doesn’t quite understand if this is spontaneous catharsis or just plain crazy. The subsequent blur of near-orgasmic writing he produces persuades him that there is method to Blixen’s madness.
It is only after her more active attempts at his social destruction, namely her questioning the necessity of Bjørnvig’s loyalty to his wife and child, that “the good doctor” realizes the incredible lengths to which she will go to achieve emotional catharsis. She is domineering yet detached. Her lessons on writing tread a blurred line between madness and spontaneity. In fact, the plays leaves a viewer with these questions: Does literary genius require madness? Can catharsis be reached by destruction of convention and an embrace of the strange?
The Scandinavian American Theater Company production of The Baroness—Isak Dinesen’s Final Affair runs through Sept. 24 at the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd St.at Ninth Avenue). Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Wed.–Sat.; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $45 available at (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com or www.theatrerow.org.