"The Baroness: Isak Dinesen's Final Affair" Not Romantic Enough; The Dzieci Company's Shipping Container 'Makbet" (Yes, Canned "Macbeth")

09/10/2017 08:28 pm ET

There are people who excel at spotting others in psychological need and exploiting them. They’re experts in enthralling mercilessly.

That’s how Danish playwright Thor Bjorn Krebs interprets the alliance between renowned short story writer Karen Blixen, more commonly know as Isak Dinesen, and the poet Thorkild Bjornvig in The Baroness: Isak Dinesen’s Final Affair, now at the Clurman Theatre under the auspices of the Scandinavian American Theater Company.

About their friendship, which took place for several years in the late 1940s and earlier 1950s, not that much specific is known of their daily dallying. So relying, as he says in a program note, on “anecdotes, letters and books” about the duo, Krebs has imagined how the liaison might have unfolded. And, boy-oh-boy, has he allowed his imagination to run free! (He also counts on the stories Dinesen published about her time with Bjornvig.)

In his work (translated by Kim Damboek), the 62-year-old baroness (Dee Pelletier) invites the 29-yeqr-old married-with-a-child Bjornvig (Conrad Ardelius) to her home for an extended stay. She’s read his acclaimed debut volume, admired it and hopes she can help him overcome the writer’s block he claims is keeping him from a second volume.

The home that metal-looking grid that set designer Akiko Nishijima Rotch builds for Blixen resembles a Mondrian painting (and even more so as the drama proceeds). On it there’s furniture initially covered by sheets that Bjornvig removes as if peeling away the years for a flashback tale not unlike some the author has spun in her famous collections.

On prominent display is an easel holding the drawing of a naked man seen from the back. Is anyone reading this game to bet on whether Bjornvig becomes the baroness’s next model?

Never mind. Krebs’s opening segments show immediate promise, as Bjornvig introduces himself arriving at the homestead and first meeting attractive young neighbor Benedicte (Vanessa Johansson) and then the baroness herself, who’s elegant in costumer Stine Martinsen’s mauve hostess outfit.

Much goes swimmingly as the lady and the poet make a friendship pact, but slowly Dinesen’s insistence that Bjornvig do her unrelenting bidding palls. Yes, she does get him writing again. Under the moon, he blurts a poem she loves, but it’s a verse that comes across the footlights as kinda gooey. And when she eventually confides that her inspirations derive from Lucifer and reveals her syphilis condition, audience members may start feeling fidgety.

That she’s a mad woman, in Krebs’s dramatic estimation, gets increasingly clearer, and don’t you know there are those plays when viewers get to musing about why the character confronting such off-putting behavior doesn’t just leave? The answer to the question is usually that the playwright won’t allow it for fear of then having no play left.

So while the baroness gets nuttier and nuttier—at one point she shows up in a Pierrot costume—and more and more obviously evil, Bjornvig hangs on. Were she to hand him a glass of Kool-Aid, he’d likely drink it.

Pelletier, Ardelius and Johansson as Benedicte, who before it’s all over declares her love for the poet, do what they can with the hyper-roles. Director Henning Hedland should take much of the credit for that.

What’s really galling about The Baroness: Isak Dinesen’s Final Affair is that, while spectators already partial to her works know how strong they are, those who aren’t could promise themselves never to get anywhere near the tales. That would be a crying shame.

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You’ve seen Macbeth. You’ve seen Macbeth given any number of inspired and sometimes merely nutty directorial spins. But you haven’t seen Macbeth until you’ve seen it presented by the Dzieci Theatre as part of the outfit’s 20th anniversary season.

First thing: You won’t see it in a conventional auditorium. Called Makbet in line with its middle-European influences and Gypsy-infused elements, it’s being offered at Sure We Can, a Brooklyn recycling Center. (The “Can” in the name supports that setting.)

Moreover, the William Shakespeare overhaul takes place not just amid stacks of plastic bottles but inside a shipping container. Yes, no need to reread the previous sentence to see if you read it right. The classic tragedy does take place in a shipping container (maybe a discarded Maersk item, maybe not), the door of which is slammed shut just as the play begins.

Beforehand, the troupe welcomes the small number of patrons the container will accommodate by singing songs (an accordion is at hand), passing out food and Saki shots and gathering around a fire started in a large metal barrel. It’s all very gemutlich, if that’s to your liking.

Then the play begins. It’s Shakespeare, all right, trimmed to two intermissionless hours but with all the favorite passages retained. There’s a ritualistic aura about it, enhanced by frequent banging on the container sides and barely ceasing choral moaning and howling. You’ll have to decide how much of this you can take.

Megan Bones, Yvonne Brechbuhler and Matt Mitler take on the major roles but don’t necessarily stick to the one they begin with. They’re identified throughout by the hat, scarf or shawl they’re wearing at any given juncture. The chorus, also switching accessories (if I have it correctly), consists of Ryan Castalia, Felicity Doyle Golan, Chris Cook and alternate player Jesse Hathaway.

The entire enterprise is adapted, directed and designed by Mitler, who on the night I saw it, got to deliver—impressively—the “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” lament. It’s tempting to say that under these outré circumstances the sinisterly beloved work crept at a petty pace. It didn’t. The unexpected undertaking is an eye-popping-ear-poking confirmation that Shakespeare once again constructed something not easily degraded. You’re not likely to see anything resembling it ever again.

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