“Babette’s Feast,” Off-Broadway Play Review by Andrea Santo Felcone

Isak Dinesen’s “Babette’s Feast”–the short story–is the basis for a new Off-Broadway play on stage now at the Theatre at St. Clement’s (423 West 46th Street). If the name of this production sounds familiar, it may be that you are one of the many who loved “Babette’s Feast” when it appeared as a film in the late 1980s.

Babette's Feast

Photo credit: Carol Rosegg

“Babette’s Feast,” the theatrical piece, is set in Berlevaag, Norway. Director, Karin Coonrod: “It is here at the edge of space and time (summer’s nights are white and winter’s days are black) where comes the French stranger. A radical act of giving happens. It’s a simple story that cuts deep.”

The story is simple, and somehow elegant and charming. In a remote Danish village, two sisters lead a devout and austere life taking care of their father, the local Lutheran minister, and their father’s congregation. Their life is one of selfless service, piety, devotion, with no concern for pleasure. Though the sisters attract many suitors, neither sister marries. They spend their lives together, in sacrifice and service to their religion, and to their father until his death.

Martine, (played by Abigail Killeen, who it should be noted conceived and developed this play) is the elder sister and Philippa (played by Juliana Francis Kelly) the younger sibling in this production. Both had their chance at romance—Philippa with a famous Parisian opera star. Many years later, the aging opera star sends a French refugee to the sisters, as he can think of none better to help this Parisian woman who has lost everything. In his letter, he ends with the off-handed remark that “Babette can cook.” And, so the French refugee, Babette Hersant (played by Michelle Hurst—Orange is the New Black), becomes their housekeeper and cook. Babette does not reveal that she was a renowned French chef back in Paris, but goes about preparing their simple meals to their specifications (boiled cod; ale and bread soup–among the highlights).

In an odd twist of fate, Babette comes into a large sum of money. Babette’s one request is that the sisters let her cook a lavish French meal to her specifications, using her money. Babette expresses this would be her only prayer to them, in a world that has left her without prayer. They reluctantly agree, (not wanting to invite gluttony). The sisters (and 10 others) are treated to a celebratory meal in honor of their now deceased father. The meal is miraculous and transforms the diners.

The story itself whets one’s appetite. The setting of the play—brilliantly housed in a Church that is also a Theater, suits the story perfectly. The set is austere, and rightly so, to accurately portray the subject matter. However, when the cast initially take the stage in their stark white religious headgear, one may wonder if this play will be inviting. There is something about the beginning that pushes the audience back (a bit), but then as the play progresses the audience is brought in, embraced whole-heartedly. Once “in,” the production is mesmerizing.

The story is told through unique methods: acting, singing, dancing, sound effects (an actor will “knock” in the air, while other actors stomp on the stage floor to represent the sound of the “knock”). Actors pantomime to represent props that are not actually there. The wonderful cast includes several actors playing multiple roles using multiple accents (the cast is diverse as various ethnicities are represented). The scene where the opera singer (Steven Skybell) is teaching Philippa (Juliana Francis Kelly) to sing was lovely (both have exquisite voices). There is a scene in the later section of the play where the entire cast sings in harmony and it is truly beautiful.

Babette's Feast

Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg

Babette is a true artist, who we learn has spent all of her money on this one meal–yet she is the richer for it. The sisters and the other diners have been given a gift. This production leaves the viewer richer as well, and reminds us to graciously accept the gifts of others, for the acceptance of a gift freely given, elevates both the giver and receiver.

For tickets: https://telecharge.com/Off-Broadway/Babettes-Feast/Overview

Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission

Theatre at St. Clement’s: 423 West 46th Street, between 9th and 10th avenues

Cast & Artists:

Babette: Michelle Hurst

Martine: Abigail Killeen

Philippa: Juliana Francis Kelly

Player 1: Sturgis Warner

Player 2: Jo Mei

Player 3: Steven Skybell

Player 4: Jeorge Bennett Watson

Player 5: Elliot Nye

Player 6: Sorab Wadia

Director: Karin Coonrod

Writer: Rose Courtney, adapted from the short story by Isak Dinesen

Lighting & Set Design: Christopher Akerlind

Sound Designer: Kate Marvin

Costume Designer: Oana Botez

Dance Consultant: Aretha Aoki

Composer: Gina Leishman

Tags: , , ,