Bøe back on stage in New York

Jeanne Bøe

Jeanne Bøe

Jeanne Bøe returns to New York with a superb theater piece on Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen

Rolf Stang

Norwegian American Weekly

Extraordinary Norwegian actress, Jeanne Bøe, was last in New York in 2006, to present her on-target, tour-de-force sweep through “Peer Gynt,” in which she portrayed Ibsen’s characters one after the other with bravado. On Tuesday, Oct. 13, an excited audience awaited her return to the Norwegian Seamen’s Church and Cultural Center. This time, she would bring an homage to a great Danish author, with her lyrically expressive “Karen Blixen… Baroness.”

Blixen’s Swedish husband, Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke, stood very much at the core of Blixen’s fate. The Baron was a charming, self-centered rogue, a devil-take-the-hindmost Don Giovanni/Don Juan type.

Karen Dinesen Blixen, his new wife, planned to establish a cattle farm in Africa and borrowed money from her family to do so. However, the arrogant Baron Blixen impetuously committed them to invest in planting coffee, instead! The years would soon show that their Nairobi, Kenya farm lay at too high an elevation for coffee to be a reliable, profitable crop.

Karen Dinesen, as storyteller, took on at some point the Biblical pseudonym of Isak, meaning the Laughing One. (She could not have known then how it might help in maintaining her spirit on the difficult road to come.) I have noticed, Danes today tend to refer to her by her ‘other name,’ Isak Dinesen. But, Karen Blixen, it seems, is how she referred to herself. Her married name, after all, brought with it the special identity of Baroness!

In this skillfully written monologue, we soon learn what a dear price she ultimately paid to have that prestigious title. One assumes she liked it in part, because, while struggling with her fickle coffee-growing business, it gave her status and weight in dealing with the male-chauvinist world of Europeans in Africa.

We know that Karen loved music and Mozart in particular. Significantly, as Ms. Bøe is about to make her entrance, things open to a bare stage and the commanding sound of Dona Elvira’s aria of protest against mega-ego and master-seducer Don Giovanni. An innovative way to set the tone for the play, this aria, from Mozart’s opera of the same name, forebodingly prepares us for the destiny of the Blixen marriage.

Tragically, beyond forcing his wife into the coffee growing business and, thus, financial disaster, Baron Blixen, the local Don Juan and man of casual love affairs, passes the syphilis spirochete on to her, infecting her! Plagued as she was by this, her stoic Isak spirit would nonetheless continue to mesmerize everyone she met.

Bøe has been well directed by Marit Omland and Kari Bunæs, and throughout gives the audience an assured, aristocratic Blixen. Well-chosen, direct quotes offered in a warm, quiet voice strongly reveal the great inner strength of Karen Isak Dinesen Blixen… the Baroness! The script by Bøe, the dramatist, is as subtly spun as the writing style we find in her subject’s books. Gracefully and firmly, Bøe, the actress, carries us from episode to episode.

A distinctive highlight comes through clear, ingenious means, as she tackles the challenge of giving us insight into Blixen’s plot-building system, showing us just how the tapestry of a Blixen story is convincingly woven.

To do this, Bøe chooses to explore aspects of the story “Babette’s Feast.” Most in the audience would have seen Gabriel Axel’s brilliant, award-winning art-film of the same name (in which, by the way, the scene is moved from Norway to Denmark), and, further, the other award-winning Blixen film, Meryl Streep and Sydney Pollack’s “Out of Africa.” If so, one pictured the persons, places, and events vividly.

With clarity and deceptive simplicity, Bøe illustrated Blixen’s skills at moving her characters about. By cross-referencing old, with recent events, for example, we come to believe the feasibility of what’s happening. The recent contact made after many years, between two former suitors and the two beautiful, pious and single sisters of the story, Philippa and Martina, succeeds in making the important link to France real.

There, in Paris, Philippa’s suitor from long ago has recommended that famed Babette Hersant, escape the scourge of the French Revolution by going to the safe haven the sisters in the North will offer. She has his letter in hand when she arrives. Thus, do the actions interrelate and become credible.

Bøe goes on, revealing more of the threads of this process, as Blixen brings back the other unrequited suitor, that of her sister, Martina. (He is back on one of his visits to his old aunt!) A former attaché in Paris and now a general, this man of the world is a connoisseur of many things and a gourmet of the first rank.

He is invited to the grand thank-you feast, which Babette gives using her lottery winnings. Astonished, he names each rare wine and succulent dish. It takes him back to the remarkable fare he knew at the famed Café Anglais in Paris, precisely the café where Babette had reigned supreme. Thus, does Blixen confirm Babette’s credentials, as Master Chef de Cuisine, for the other dinner guests.

As they come together in this work, Bøe and Blixen/Dinesen are completely captivating and rewarding to experience.

This article was originally published in the Norwegian American Weekly in the Nov. 6, 2009 issue. To subscribe and for more information, call us toll-free at (800) 305-0217 or email subscribe@norway.com.

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