You won’t see the caviar perched on top of a blini or the steam rising from a bowl of turtle soup, nor will you detect the smell of foie gras and truffle sauce or cake. rum floating towards you during the production of “Babette’s Feast” by the Taproot Theater Company. . “
How can you? The food is rarely believable on stage, even when the menu is a tenth of this resort. In the direction of the director Scott Nolte, the plates are bare, the food imagination and the dramatic stakes of a community of ascetics determined to take no pleasure in the hearty meal are also lacking.
It’s hardly the fault of Nolte or anyone involved in the generally enjoyable production of Taproot. When it premiered in 2018 at Portland Stage Company in Maine, and a subsequent production off Broadway, there was also no actual food. (Somewhere, a prop man shudders at the thought of arguing over the consumables needed to recreate this menu night after night.) But given the importance of the stage and its impossibilities on stage, why adapt it for the theater?
Designed by Abigail Killeen and written by Rose Courtney, the play is based on Isak Dinesen’s 1950 short story, although it’s a sure bet, most of the affection for “Babette’s Feast” stems from the 1987 film adaptation directed by Gabriel Axel. Recipient of the Oscar for best foreign language film, the arthouse crossover success is one of the key texts in the food film microgenre alongside “Tampopo” and “Big Night”.
The thrill of seeing Babette’s opulent menu come to life is the key to the film’s success. On stage, the gravity of the moment never reaches a thrill, and there isn’t enough drama in the rest of Dinesen’s story to complete it.
Flashbacks detail the story of the characters of BerlevÃ¥g in the 19th century, a small Norwegian town nestled on the edge of a fjord. In Courtney’s adaptation, these scenes are mostly exhibition dumps delivered by a choir.
We learn from sisters Martine (Jenny Vaughn Hall) and Philippa (April Poland), who are part of a small Lutheran sect led by their strict father (Nolan Palmer). Suitors abound, including a visiting army officer (Kevin Pitman) and an opera singer (Matthew Posner), but the pastor keeps them at bay. Friendly but extremely pious, Martine and Philippa reject earthly pleasures with hardly less vigor than their father.
Decades later, Babette (Pam Nolte) arrives at the home of the single sisters. A refugee from Paris, she is ready to work as an unpaid housekeeper and cook, and she dutifully devotes herself to making the bland bread soup and split cod dishes that make up the local diet.
Nolte’s performance, serene but conscious, suggests a world of tacit experiences hidden beneath the placid surface. Dinesen’s story notes, Babette “appeared to be a beggar; she turned out to be a conqueror, âand Nolte has the silent command to reorient the room around Babette, even though the character remains largely in the background.
“Babette’s Feast” marks Taproot’s return to live performances after an absence of nearly two years caused by the pandemic. The show was originally slated for a Spring 2020 opening, and Mark Lund’s set has been waiting on stage ever since. The attractive, monochrome scenic design captures the quaint charm of the secluded setting, and the ensemble strives to develop an image of a community fairly content with its austere lifestyle.
The culminating feast, planned after Babette receives a boon and insists on cooking a French meal for members of the congregation, challenges that prospect – or she should. In the production of Taproot, austerity seems much more powerful than extravagance.
At mealtime, Pitman’s army officer is the only stranger present, and his awe-inspiring performance is a laudable effort to communicate the wonder of the experience. Yet the staging cannot conjure up the magic of empty serving dishes, and there is a hole where the climax of the story should be, resulting in a theatrical meal that is more split cod than foie gras. .