(l to r) Steven Skybell, Sturgis Warner (background), Sorab Wadia (background), Juliana Francis-Kelly, Elliot Nye (background) in ‘Babette’s Feast.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
By April Stamm
There is great suffering in the world; famine, injustice, terror and confusion. There is also abundant strength, hope, generosity, persistence and above all, love. Babette’s Feast, originally a short story by Isak Dinesen and then a 1987 Danish film directed by Gabriel Axel, in basic plot helps navigate this, showing that love cannot be diminished by pain. However, while the Theatre at St. Clement’s new production of Babette’s Feast, helmed by Abigail Killeen (conceived and developed), Rose Courtney (writer) and Karin Coonrod (director) takes on this storied work apparently with the hope of catching this balance and showing a world where “anything is possible,” it falls into overwrought pretention and flat theatrics.
Finding a home in the original short story’s setting of Berlevag, Norway, this production plunks us down into the lives its pious overseers, first the honored and esteemed Dean (Sturgis Warner), then after his passing his daughters, Martine (Abigail Killeen) and Philippa (Juliana Francis Kelly). The town is depicted as a simple place of simple acts; going to the market, meetings amongst the congregation and above all praying. Through flashbacks, we learn that the sisters each had a brush with love or infatuation. Martine was struck immovable by the appearance of a young gallivant general who happened on their shores. He, too, was so overwhelmed by her beauty that he fled back to his militarily fulfilling and wandering life after their encounters.
Having her moment, Philippa is spotted by a French opera star on his brief sojourn to town. He is overwhelmed by her loveliness and angelic singing voice. After just a few singing lessons and a scandalous kiss, very possibly instigated by Philippa, she quits his tutorial services and he flees, broken heartened back to Paris.
Fast forward decades later, the sisters are settled spinsters, the town is exactly the same, and in walks Babette (Michelle Hurst), a refugee from Paris. She has a letter from Philippa’s opera love and is taken in as the housekeeper. She works for the family, and therefore the town, for many years before her number comes up, literally, and she wins the French lottery. Unbeknownst to the sisters, Babette, in gratitude of the sisters’ generosity, spends the entire ten thousand francs on a sumptuous “real” French feast on the anniversary of their father’s birthday. This pushes the sisters’ and the pious town’s boundaries as far as worldly pleasures. Oh, and who just happens to be in town for such a fabulous and odd occurrence? Martine’s general.
There is a lot to work with here socially, emotionally and religiously. Unfortunately, this production does not tackle any of those things. Stylistically, it focuses on poetic presentational language, creative sound design (produced almost entirely by the cast and its use of set and props) and has ignored character development, emotional connection or social context.
Clean and cold, the sets (Christopher Akerlind) and costumes (Oana Botez) certainly bespeak the time and place. We are brought into a world of black heavy cloth and solid wood of Berlevag. Babette brings her Parisian sensibility to the stage with crystal and silver, lightness amongst the heavy. In a sea of weighty frocks of black and navy, Babette appears in a more fluid dress, printed with a classic Parisian scene, as if she wears her memories of her homeland.
It’s hard to critique the acting when the direction is so heavy-handed and difficult to see past. The play is structured in the form of a poem, with the dialog trumping any character development or connection for the audience. Sprinkled in awkwardly, are moments of silly humor that fall clumsily on the audience. Accents are bandied about with confusing effect. Aside from the understandable convention that the two French characters have “French” accents (French-speaking English), what is a challenging and possibly offensive is that some (not all) of the servants speak as if they are from Appalachia and the bread seller has a troubling urban slant to his banter.
Ultimately, Babette’s Feast could have a lot to say about a lot of things. It could have something to say about joy amongst the everyday, love conquering everyday strife or piety and the beauty of the world walking hand in hand. This production, however, portrays none of these things. It is concerned with saying words with definition, clever use of sound, and not much else. In this world we live in, we need more.
The Theatre at St. Clement’s
423 W. 46th Street, NYC
Through September 2, 2018
April Stamm is a theater, food, and lifestyle journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Broadway Blog and EDGE Media Network and is a Chef Instructor at the International Culinary Center.