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Babette's Feast

A great artist is never poor. We have something . . . of which other people know nothing.— Babette, the French refugee of Babette's Feast.
Babette's Feast
Left to right: Abigail Killeen, Michelle Hurst, Juliana Francis Kelly, Sturgis Warner (background), Jeorge Bennett Watson (Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg)
Isak Dinesen, Denmark's great 20th century teller of tales, isn't a household name any more. Her fame in this country, once immense, rests primarily on the 1987 motion picture Babette's Feast, which Danish director Gabriel Axel based on a Dinesen short story of the same title. That movie, so dear to the hearts of indie film fans and foodies, is an early example of the genre now called food porn..

In writing their new stage play Babette's Feast, Abigail Killeen and Rose Courtney have made Dinesen's original, rather than Axel's film, their source. It's a good bet, though, that the producers who've brought this charming entertainment to Manhattan from the Portland Stage Company in Maine are counting on the name recognition of that Oscar-winning motion picture rather than the prestige of an increasingly obscure Scandinavian literary figure..

Babette's Feast concerns a French refugee, the former chef at the celebrated Café Anglais in Paris, whose strategic use of culinary art transforms a group of chill-hearted zealots into good neighbors and, most of all, happy souls."I am a great artist," declares Babette (Michaelle Hurst). "A great artist . . . is never poor. We have something . . . of which other people know nothing."

A Communard in the civil strife of 1871 Paris, Babette has fled France fearing for her life. Undercover in Norway, she serves as maid-of-all work for two middle aged sisters in the village of Berlevaag.

The sisters, Martine (playwright Killeen) and Philippa (Juliana Francis Kelly), devote their energies to preserving the pietistic values of their late father, who was the spiritual leader of the ascetic Protestant sect to which they belong. They find Babette's Roman Catholicism exotic and know nothing of the artists, intellectuals, and members of the nobility who have shaped her character.

Babette is a canny fish out of water, inconspicuous and adept at survival. She gladdens the Calvinist hearts of her unworldly employers with household frugality and the bargaining skills with which she does the shopping. Despite her high culinary standards, she uncomplainingly prepares the sectarians' bland diet — split cod, for instance, and bread-and-ale soup.

After many years among the Norwegian sectarians, Babette finally reveals her artistic gifts; but even then she is strategic. After winning the French lottery, she requests the honor of preparing a dinner in honor of the hundredth anniversary of the birth of the sisters' father. Permitted to do so, Babette spends all her lottery purse to create the banquet of the play's title.

Babette makes no speeches to the guests at the feast. In fact, she remains in the kitchen. But the gustatory pleasure of the meal expresses Babette's cri de coeur: "Give me leave to do my utmost!" And the sensory effects of the evening transform the villagers in ways they observe but don't understand.

The Portland Stage production, directed by Karin Coonrod, is nearly as simple and spare as the lives of the fanatical sectarians in Dinesen's story. Scenic and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind has devised a plain set: board floor and brick wall, with tables and chairs easily rearranged to create various locations. The actors, costumed by Oana Botez, are in black and white attire, more 17th than 19th century in design, indicating that the sectarians of Berlevaag live by standards of the Reformation rather than the industrial revolution. As Babette, Hurst (Claudette Pelage in Orange Is the New Black) is as enigmatic as a parable. Hers is a low-key performance, serene, even pianissimo, through most of the evening; but that doesn't undermine the formidability of her stage presence. And Hurst's pantomime of complex food preparation engages the eye like ballet.

Hurst is surrounded by eight versatile performers, all of whom do double, triple or quadruple duty, transforming themselves swiftly from one character to another. They also use their voices, tongues, knuckles, and feet to create sundry, often surprising, sound effects — horses' hooves, ringing bells, wind, and the workings of a steamship.

The playwrights have elected to steer clear of realism and any semblance of the visual extravagance associated with Axel's film. Theater aficionados will savor the actors' ability to conjure the feast with a few props and Dinesen's words. Those attending on the strength of the movie's reputation may find the lack of real food a stumbling block.

While Babette's Feast has a number of highly dramatic moments, the playwrights' reverence for Dinesen's words has led them merely to tell much of the story, using descriptive passages from the original, rather than really staging it. At times, the production seems more platform reading than drama; and, if you close your eyes, you may fancy you're listening to an audiobook of the short story rather than an evening of theater.

Isak Dinesen — Karen Blixon in private life or, more formally, Baroness Karen Christentze Blixon-Finecke — was much admired by her contemporary Ernest Hemingway. When told he was receiving the 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature, Hemingway remarked, "I would have been happy — happier — today if the prize had been given to that beautiful writer Isak Dinesen." Dinesen never received the Nobel and, despite the fact that Meryl Streep impersonated her in the film Out of Africa, she's no longer a household name. Whatever its shortcomings, this new Babette's Feast brings Dinesen and her genius for tale telling to the attention of new audiences and offers a sense of why her work made Hemingway happy.

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Babette's Feast
Conceived & Developed by Abigail Killeen
Written by Rose Courtney
Adapted from the short story by Isak Dinesen
Directed by Karin Coonrod
Cast: Michelle Hurst (Babette), Juliana Francis Kelly (Philippa), Abigail Killeen (Martine), Jo Mei (Player 2), Elliot Nye (Player 5), Steven Skybell (Player 3), Sorab Wadia (Player 6), Sturgis Warner (Player 1), Jeorge Bennett Watson (Player 4)
Scenic & Lighting Design by Christopher Akerlind
Costume Design by Oana Botez
Sound Design by Kate Marvin
Original Music by Gina Leishman
Dance Consultation by Aretha Aoki
Production Stage Manager: Krista Swan
Running Time: 90 minutes without intermission
From 3/14/18; Opened 3/25/18; Closing 5/13/18
Reviewed by Charles Wright at 3/19/18 press preview.

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