Grace Treston says:
The story of Babette’s Feast is already well known and oft adapted. The latest reincarnation hits New York City this month, at the Theatre at St Clement’s.
Originally a short story published in 1958 by Karen Blixen, whose pen name was famously Isak Dinesen, Babette’s Feast was reborn into an Oscar-winning feature-length film in 1987 by screenwriter and director Gabriel Axel. Directed by Karen Coonrod, it stretches its legs as a stage play this spring, officially opening March 25.
The dramatic adaption is particularly well cast, with nine actors in total. Many of the talents take on the burden of more than one role – and the limited troupe benefits the play in permitting things to flow quite smoothly.
Nearly all cast members are on stage simultaneously at any given time, which is an impressive feat in a 90-minute play with no intermission to provide respite. Energy needed to stay high, and the team did well.
Acting as narrators throughout the show when their main role had no spoken dialogue, the cast is animated and sharp as they helped the story to unfold.
We meet the community of Berlevåg all at once in the opening scene. Sisters Martine (Abigail Killeen) and Philippa (Juliana Francis Kelly) are hailed as the beautiful but kept daughters of their religious father (Sturgis Warner) in 19th century Norway.
The other characters to grace the stage with strong presence are Martine’s star-crossed lover (Jeorge Bennett Watson) and Philippa’s musical mentor (Steven Skybell). Supporting players include Jo Mei, Elliot Nye and Sorab Wadia, and the capable cast give solid performances all round.
The mysterious Babette (Michelle Hurst) enters the small Norwegian village about half-way through the play, and the performance is arguably more enjoyable after this point. Hurst’s intimidating and bold take on the generous Babette is striking. The Brooklyn-born actor sounds, once again, impressively French – as she has managed to do so effortlessly in past roles.
The idea for the theatrical version of Babette’s Feast was conceived and developed by Abigail Killeen – the face of Martine. Playwright Rose Courtney is to be praised for the succinct script that stays true to the essence of the original short story, but with a noticeable change. The first Feast took place in Jutland, Denmark, while this stays firmly put in Norway’s tundra.
Direction by Coonrod is impressive. The plot, comprising a pious and dwindling community and an overtly generous act, may not resonate with everyone in this bustling, forgetful city of New York. However, Coonrod’s efforts allow us to invest in the lives of these Norwegian ghosts, lost in a time we’ve never known.
The stage design (by Christopher Akerlind) is perhaps the best example of creative initiative in the show. Alternations of cold and warm lighting allow spatial and temporal changes to be shown quite simply, without much distraction. This stays true to the intensity of Berlevåg’s seasons, as described by Karen Coonrod herself: “It is here at the edge of space and time – summer’s nights are white and winter’s days are black – comes the stranger.”
Text projections on the back-wall help guide the story through its chapters, and this is achieved without being too gaudy – which could have been easily done. Kate Marvin’s sound design and Gina Leishman’s original music allow for a seamless and well-embedded audio experience.
Babette’s Feast’s costumes deserve a major nod of recognition. Oana Botez’s creations are realistic enough to send us back in time to 19th century Norway, but have enough eccentricity injected in them to keep our attention.
Overall, the play is short, sweet, and endearing. The creative team’s unflinching efforts pay off, and to view the show is an experience worth having.
Photos: Carol Rosegg
Babette’s Feast opens March 25 at The Theatre at St Clement’s, 423 West 46th Street, New York. Tickets can be purchased at Telecharge.com, or by phone at 212 239 6200.
90 minutes no intermission