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Babette’s Feast

Theatre Review by James Wilson - March 25, 2018

Michelle Hurst
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Babette's Feast, currently playing at the Theatre at St. Clement's, demonstrates the power of art, grace, and selfless generosity to unite a community riven by petty differences, personal slights, and emotional scars. Employing a range of story-theatre techniques and hewing closely to Isak Dinesen's short story from 1950, the production offers a gentle reminder of a shared humanity in our own trying times.

The outstanding nine-person ensemble makes one almost forget the excellent film adaption, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1987. Set in Berlevåg, an isolated village in the farthest reaches of Norway, the story focuses on two pious and charitable sisters, Martine (Abigail Killeen) and Philippa (Juliana Francis Kelly), who live with their father, a staunch Christian ecclesiastic. The sisters each have short-lived love affairs, Martine to a young military officer and Philippa to an opera star, but when their father dies, they resign themselves to a life divested of earthly pleasures.

The second half of the play takes place fifteen years later with the arrival of Babette (Michelle Hurst, best known for her work on "Orange is the New Black"), who is a refugee of the Paris Commune rebellion of 1871. She is a mysterious woman, who had been arrested as a Pétroleuse, someone who set fires to houses during the unrest. We learn that she has been sent by Philippa's opera beau, Achille Papin (Steven Skybell), who suggests the Frenchwoman live with the sisters. In his introductory letter Papin casually remarks (in one of the all-time great literary understatements), "Babette can cook."

Fortuitously, Babette has come into a small fortune, and she requests that she be allowed to prepare a sumptuous French dinner for the hundredth birthday celebration of the sisters' deceased father. The final section of the play is a gourmet's fantasy as we watch Babette gather the ingredients, then chop, whip, and mix them all into a life-changing banquet.

Running about ninety minutes in performance, the play (which was conceived and developed by Killeen and written by Rose Courtney) feels a tad overcooked, particularly in some of the earlier sections. Still, there is much to savor from the performances under Karin Coonrod's resourceful and often highly inventive direction. As the sisters, Killeen and Kelly are a lovely pair, and they exude strength and dignity in their devotional commitment. Hurst's Babette is a formidable and fascinating creation. As the self-proclaimed artist, Babette is an enigmatic woman, and Hurst imbues the character's dedication to fine cuisine with the equivalence of religious fervor matched only by the sisters' quite asceticism.

Elliot Nye, Sturgis Warner, Juliana Francis-Kelly,
Jeorge Bennett Watson, Abigail Killeen, Michelle Hurst,
Sorab Wadia, Jo Mei, Steven Skybell
Photo by Carol Rosegg

The three women receive excellent support from the other members of the cast, who represent the rest of the villagers. They also serve as a chorus of sorts, sometimes providing Foley-like sound effects to capture the sensory (and humorous) elements that often permeate the stark society. A highpoint, for instance, occurs during the mimed preparation of Babette's feast. Although we do not see the food items, the actors provide whooshing, pounding, and gurgling noises while simultaneously evoking the meticulousness and sensuality of Babette's culinary artistry. This is theatre in its purest form.

Christopher Akerlind's scenic and lighting design capture the austerity and coldness of the small village, and Oana Botez's costumes mainly consist of dark and heavy puritan clothes with ruffle collars and white bonnets. In this vision Dinesen's story and characters seem to emerge from a painting by Harriet Backer, the Norwegian artist.

Cleverly, Babette's costume consists of a French Impressionist print. In presentation and comportment she offers a radically alternative means for experiencing the world. Art, as Babette shows by example, manifests itself in myriad ways, and, however it is consumed, the results can be spiritually transformative.

Babette's Feast
Through September 3
Theatre at Saint Clement's, 423 West 46th Street, between Ninth & Tenth Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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