nytheatre.com review by Alyssa Simon
June 17, 2010
Babette's Feast is my favorite film. I was thrilled for the opportunity to see this stage adaptation written by Rose Courtney and produced by Threads Theater Company and International Arts Movement. I don't know, however, if my biased esteem for the movie makes me the best reviewer for the play. There are so many imaginative and thoughtful parts of this production I and the audience loved and a few that I, perhaps alone, question.
The story takes place in Berlevaag, a small Norwegian coastal town in the mid-1800s. Two beautiful and pious sisters, Martine and Philippa, assist their father the Dean, a pastor and founder of his own Christian church. His followers practice modesty and austerity but carry decades' old grudges in their hearts against their neighbors and fellow parishioners.
The sisters never marry or leave the town. It is their father's will that they live chastely and perform the duties of his church, which they do, even years after his death. They are kind, live righteously, and do good deeds for others, but shun their creative impulses and opportunities for love.
Achille Papin, a jaded visiting opera star, is mesmerized by Philippa's glorious singing in church and begs her father to let him give her lessons. He offers a chance to perform in Paris and says she has inspired him to believe in miracles again.
Philippa is tempted but refuses and spurns his romantic advances, never to see him again. Similarly, Martine allows Lorens Loewenhielm, a dashing young officer, to end a budding romance before it begins.
15 years pass and a stranger, a refugee from the French Civil War named Babette Hersant, arrives and faints on the sisters' doorstep. She carries a letter from Papin that explains her circumstances. Her husband and son have been killed and she had to run for her life.
Papin begs the sisters to take her in. He writes that Babette asked if he knew any good people and they were the first ones he thought of. And, he adds, "Babette can cook." The sisters have no money to hire her, but she declares she will work for free because if she is sent away, she will die.
12 years later, Babette has become indispensable. She has stifled her opinions on the dreadfully plain food she must prepare and has acclimated to her simple life, never speaking of her past. One day, she receives her first letter in a dozen years, a notice she has won the French lottery and a fortune of 10,000 francs.
She asks the sisters for permission to prepare a "real French dinner" on the anniversary of the late Dean's birthday and insists on paying for it with her winnings. They agree reluctantly, but the exotic and sumptuous ingredients she returns with from Paris shock the parishioners, who fear pleasure is a sin and even believe her to be a witch.
They make a pact to attend the dinner but not speak one word about the food or show appreciation. Loewenhielm, the officer, is also at the feast and the only guest who has lived a worldly life; he alone recognizes the genius of her culinary artistry.
There are then two secrets revealed I will not give away. I found it amazing and admirable how director Quin Gordon and the superb cast bring an exquisite dinner to life with no props, no food, and no table. An actor with foley devices and a microphone in audience view creates the clinking of fine crystal and other sound effects.
The ensemble is extraordinary and many of the actors take on several roles. Standouts, although everyone is fantastic, include Courtney, who is also the playwright, as Martine. Her understated delivery and humble bearing in contrast with her expressive face and deep emotional life are thrilling to watch.
Hal Robinson is just wonderful. He makes a sympathetic character of the Dean, a man who denies his daughters earthly joy. Kamel Boutros, an actual opera singer with the Met, dazzles as Papin with his voice, comic timing and sensitivity.
Abbie Killeen as Babette gives a very different take on her character from the film's version. Instead of making her a quiet woman who humbly serves in gratitude, Killeen makes her glamorous with more than a bit of flirtatious sass.
It's sexy, but I think Babette's character fascinates because of the tension between her outer reserve and her extraordinary talent. She's a true artist who does not need to be flamboyant. To me, Killeen's portrayal seemed like a woman who would not feel a need to create because she thought herself a work of art.
There are added speeches to describe feelings about faith and mysticism. I'm not sure they are necessary as the actors do a fine job throughout the play to reveal their characters' emotional and psychological journeys.
I thought this was a wonderful production overall and love how the space is set so the audience sits on either side of the playing area as if guests at a feast. Attend and your soul will be well fed.