Babette’s Feast, based on a short story by Danish writer Isak Dinesen, centers not on the namesake of the title, but instead on two sisters: Philippa (Juliana Francis Kelly) and Martine (Abigail Killeen, who conceived and developed the show), the daughters of a rector (Sturgis Warner) who heads an ascetic Protestant sect. In Berlevåg, a small town on the coast, their lives are pretty ho-hum, except for a few spats between congregants, until Babette (the earthy and grounded Michelle Hurst) arrives. She is an exile who has escaped the Paris Commune of 1870, an uprising she took part in, and has made her way to where the sisters live, on the recommendation of an opera singer who once, long ago, passed through the town.
Babette’s presence stirs the sisters’ memories of love and loss: at different times in their youth they fell in love but gave it up to devote themselves to their father. Their choices have been suppressed and folded into daily chores and tasks: cooking, cleaning, knitting, tending to the property and going to church.
As in the Oscar-winning foreign film of 1987 (which set the story in Jutland, Denmark, rather than Norway), in Rose Courtney’s adaptation, directed by Karin Coonrod, time moves back and forth beautifully to tell the story of the sisters’ past and present. The opera singer (soulfully played by Steven Skybell), who recommended the town to Babette, had once visited to escape a bout of depression and despair. In his flashback, he arrives, is enthralled by Philippa’s beautiful choral vocals, and woos her with singing lessons and the promise of a life of fame and fortune. But she rejects him, and he leaves Berlevåg in the same state of despair in which he arrived.
Martine also had a suitor: a formidable and handsome general (the greatly physical Jeorge Bennett Watson) who, having lived life as a lothario, falls deeply and madly, almost spiritually, in love with Martine. The dance between time accentuates lost opportunities and hardens choices that have led to the present, in which Philippa and Martine seem neither happy nor unhappy.
The spare set (Christopher Akerlind) captures the asceticism of life in this northern outpost that is cold most of the year and cut off from the rest of the world. Aretha Aoki (dance consultant) moves the actors around to highlight individual characters as well as create a tightly knit ensemble. There’s a wonderful scene in which the general arrives on horseback; the cast bangs the table in time like hooves on a trail. But the simple set and staging often leave the marvelous and lively actors stranded. Jerzy Grotowski, the 20th century Polish theatre director, strove for a “poor theater” in which he eschewed the theatrical trappings of “rich” theater and placed the actor’s voice and body central to the performance. In this respect, Jo Mei as Player 2, Steven Skybell as Player 3 and the opera singer, Sorab Wadia as Player 6, and Jeorge Bennett Watson as Player 4 and the general are notable for fully bringing to life characters without much context. The singing and sound-making create a soundtrack that enlivens the production. The multicultural cast, who play not only young and old but interchange male and female roles, also adds a rich texture that challenges casting norms.
In the climax—the feast that Babette prepares—crates are brought in and dinner is made. Again, the cast produce sounds that contribute to the imagination of what Babette might be preparing. Mixing is indicated with a whoosh-whoosh sound; bottles are opened with a little elongated pop; and bowls are moved with a clink, clink, clink. The meal itself, however, to honor the sect’s founder, is created only out of sounds and gestures, leaves the sumptuousness to one’s imagination, but Babette’s “art” has brought the ascetics one night of enlightenment. At the dinner, the guests recount the past both joyfully and sorrowfully, as well as enjoy the otherwise forbidden fruits of wine and gourmet cooking. We may have to fill in the blanks as to what is served, but that familiar mixture of both pathos and excitement that such an event often provokes is clearly conveyed.
Babette’s Feast runs for an open-ended engagement at St. Clement’s Theatre, (423 W. 46th St. between Ninth and Tenth avenues). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday at 3 p.m. Sunday. For more information and tickets, visit babettesfeastonstage.com.