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Theatre in Review: Babette's Feast (Theatre at St. Clement's)

Michelle Hurst. Photo: Carol Rosegg

A trio of fine theatre artists, aided by a generally sterling company (with an assist from Isak Dinesen), have cooked up a distinctly theatrical dish in Babette's Feast, and how you feel about it will most likely depend on your appetite for the spice of story-theatre techniques. The piece, taken from the short story of the same name by Dinesen, was conceived and developed by Abigail Killeen, written by Rose Courtney, and directed by Karin Coonrod; they have collaborated in turning a deeply interior narrative inside out. It is artfully executed on its own terms, and it certainly makes a striking contrast to Gabriel Axel's 1987 film, an art-house blockbuster beloved of film fans for its starkly beautiful vistas and luscious closeups of haute cuisine. (The term "food porn" may have gotten its start here.) But, like many a rich dish, it may not be to everyone's taste.

The story unfolds in and around the home of Martine and Philippa, spinster sisters in a Norwegian coastal town in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Their father founded a pietistic Christian sect, which, after his death, they continue to preside over. As time passes, however, their tiny, aging congregation is rent by a series of rivalries, disputes, and long-running grudges. The sisters go about their business, visiting the sick and feeding the poor, but an element of joy has vanished from their lives.

Philippa and Martine, when young, caught the eye of many a young man, all of whom were turned away in favor of religious duty. One suitor, Achille, a French opera star who divined a great vocal talent in Philippa, tried to spirit her away, promising romance and a life upon the wicked stage; he was sent packing, posthaste. Years later, Achille, now a dispirited old man whose fame has faded, presents the sisters with a strange gift: He dispatches to them Babette, a middle-aged chef and Communard who lost her husband and son in the events of 1871 and now faces arrest under the Third Republic. Philippa and Martine are stunned to receive this visitor one stormy night, and, contra Achille's plan, they insist they cannot afford a house servant.

And yet Babette stays, making herself indispensable and adding much to her employers' lives. Years go by, and, one day, Babette drops a bomb: She has won ten thousand francs in the French lottery, and, on the hundredth anniversary of the late pastor's death, she wants to cook a real French meal for the sisters and their congregants. Babette obtains their permission; after all, how can they deny their good and faithful servant? Soon, shipments of exotic foodstuffs and wine arrive from France, alarming Martine and Philippa, whose idea of a culinary treat is bread-and-ale soup. They positively tremble when faced with the tortoise who will become the basis for the soup course.

All of this is presented in classic story-theatre style, with each member of the company stepping forward to relate part of the narrative. When a character rides a horse, everyone else slaps their hands on the wooden table upstage, creating the sounds of galloping hooves, while someone neighs. When Babette steps out into the yard, the actors become a brood of chickens. There are several sequences of stylized movement.

All of this is executed with precision -- and was certainly appreciated by the audience at the performance I attended -- but, to my mind, there's something antithetical about this heavily physicalized approach to a story about the profound spiritual effect that Babette's sumptuous meal has on a tiny community of dissatisfied souls; it can lend itself to a certain amount of mugging, which is not avoided here. When Achille greets a lady of the Swedish court in his dressing room, she vamps him shamelessly, all but wrapping herself around him. Steven Skybell, who plays Achille, employs a French accent as thick as a wheel of brie, adding about seven additional "rs" to the sentence "I must tell you that her talent is very rare." When we are told "the hostesses made their little preparations in the sitting room," we see them lying face down, apparently begging the Deity for deliverance from such a rich repast. If you appreciate the film, which achieves similar effects by the subtlest of means, this production may strike you as a little too obvious for its own good.

Still, Killeen and Juliana Francis Kelly generally deliver delicate, restrained characterizations as Philippa and Martine, and, as Babette, Michelle Hurst effortlessly conveys the chef's competence and dignity while also lending her character a provocative hint of mystery. A fine contribution is made by Jeorge Bennett Watson as General Lowenhielm, who, as a young officer, spurned Martine for a life of worldly advancement, and who, disappointed with everything success has given him, appears at the dinner table to pronounce a benediction on this shared experience of food and fellowship.

Christopher Akerlind, best known as a lighting designer, is also responsible for the austere set, which consists of little more than a wood proscenium, a long table, and an overhang consisting of strings of colored glass. His lighting design is a fine study in the beauty that can be achieved by working in a severely restrained, largely white palette, relying on contrasting warm and cool tones, strong angles, and unusual positions to achieve a series of striking effects. Oana Botez's costumes are rather eccentric; with their elaborate ruffs, white skullcaps, and long trains, they seem to come from an earlier century. (You could probably do a revival of The Crucible with them.) This may be intentional, but they can be distracting; the characters show up at the dinner in a series of bizarre hats, including a shtreimel (favored by Orthodox Jews) and what looks suspiciously like a jockey's cap. In a highly imaginative touch, Babette's voluminous skirt is imprinted with a Paris street scene. Kate Marvin's sound design includes the tinkle of wind chimes.

At the end of the feast, the guests depart, so deeply affected by this experience that they engage in a lively dance -- something that characters of this time and place would never do, for fear of courting hellfire. (In the film, they merely clasp hands and move in a circle.) No meal, no matter how delicious, would be likely to provoke such behaviors. In many respects, this is a loving and faithful rendition of the original story, I missed the intimacy of the camera, not to mention although luscious close-ups of Babett'e handiwork. And, in more than a few moments, this production's overtly theatrical storytelling devices collide with Dinesen's story, with a slightly coarsening effect. -- David Barbour

(27 March 2018)

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