Based directly on Isak Dinesen’s short story, not the 1987 Danish film of the same name, this imaginative, stylized dramatization of Babette’s Feast is rather magical. Rose Courtney’s economic script employs a Greek chorus out of which characters emerge and into which they retreat. Intermittent synchronized speech, formalized movement and man-made sound effects create the kind of mesmerizing piece often fashioned by Martha Clarke. Short “chapters” are defined by projected titles.
Abigail Kileen and Juliana Francis Kelly
Devout Protestant sisters Martine (author Abigail Kileen) and Philippa (Juliana Francis Kelly) live with their pastor father (overacting Sturgis Warner) in a small village on the western coast of Denmark. Both are beautiful and sheltered, committed to pious lives. Hymns and rituals abound.
We see one representative suitor for each young woman. Martine attracts cavalry officer Lorens Löwenhielm (Jeorge Bennett Watson), who resolves that through her he can give up drink, gambling, and womanizing to become a more God-fearing man. Mutual allure is deftly played with riveted expression and magnetic movement. Both actors exhibit grace and purpose. Watson appears Shakespearean. Her father indulges the soldier’s presence on grounds of faith, but exposed to the extent of Martine’s spirituality, Lorens instead backs away. She’s heartbroken.
Steven Skybell, Sturgis Warner (background), Sorab Wadia (background), Juliana Francis-Kelly, Elliot Nye (background)
Philippa draws Achille Papinsinger (Steve Skybell). Vacationing from the Paris Opera, the vocalist hears the girl’s rapturous song in church and finagles his way into giving Philippa lessons – so that she might “serve God” with her voice. “Here is a prima donna who will lay Paris at her feet.” Achille’s single-minded ambition to share the stage and Philippa’s excited seduction by music are both palpable, making lesson scenes particularly striking. Too drawn to him and afraid of herself, she herself stops them, however. Kelly has a lovely voice and exudes gentility. Skybell is at first buffoonish, but finds his ground.
Thirty-five years later, French refugee Babette (Michelle Hurst) comes to the door with a note from now Löwenhielm asking that the sisters hire her as housekeeper. A widow, the bedraggled woman has fled revolution-torn Paris. Her only remaining tie is a friend who buys her an annual lottery ticket.
Sturgis Warner, Jo Mei, Michelle Hurst (background) Jeorge Bennett Watson, Sorab Wadia, Steven Skybell
Martine and Phillipa can’t afford help, but Babette declares she’ll work for room and board. She sets the house in fine order, learns to cook the unseasoned food (save by salt) to which the women are accustomed (fish is boiled!), and despite language issues, navigates marketing with respected skill. Hurst’s portrayal is proud, dignified, determined, and practical; a solid characterization.
All goes smoothly until, 12 years later, their housekeeper/cook wins the lottery. Babette insists on staging her own celebratory dinner in ways the sisters (and town) perceive as at the least blasphemous and possibly witchcraft. We learn about the refugee’s past, a former suitor passes through, locals are exposed to worldly aestheticism, and Babette makes an unexpected decision.
Abigail Kileen, Michelle Hurst, Juliana Francis Kelly
Director Karin Coonrod does a splendid job choreographing movement and sound that illuminates the story and sustains atmosphere. (Aretha Aoki is Dance Consultant.) Conservatism and righteousness are so thick that bursts of forbidden feeling are all the more exceptional. Coonrod successfully wields silent expression and balances group singing. Her pacing is precise and effective.
Caveats: Incidental players might be tamped down a bit to better preserve the play’s tenor. Mugging-for-humor is inappropriate and unnecessary. Two characters use distinctly out of place, southern accents. We don’t need to be shown they’re rustic villagers by this methodology.
Also featuring: Jo Mei, Elliot Nye, Sorab Wadia
Evocation of 19th Century Scandinavia and these simple, righteous characters can also be credited to Costume Designer Oana Botez whose architecturally constructed, artfully appealing period garments (reminiscent of emotional armor) would surely earn a Tony were the production on Broadway. And to minimal, perfectly chosen Set pieces by Christopher Akerlind, also responsible for Lighting Design.
Photos by Carol Rosegg
Opening: Elliot Nye, Sturgis Warner, Juliana Francis-Kelly, Jeorge Bennett Watson, Abigail Killeen, Michelle Hurst, Sorab Wadia, Jo Mei, Steven Skybell
Conceived and Developed by Abigail Killeen
Written by Rose Courtney
Adapted from the short story by Isak Dinesen
Directed by Karin Coonrod
Theatre at Saint Clement’s
423 West 46th Street