Fort Worth — From the 23rd Psalm's table set by the Lord to the ecstasies of the perfect pinot noir in the wine cult film Sideways, from the marriage feasts detailed in Homer's Odyssey to hungry orphans singing about "food, glorious food "in Oliver, humans have celebrated the marvelous abundance of the land to feed its people. That is, with a little coaxing.
It's taken eons of cultivation of a particular geography, wedded to the mystical skills of the brilliant cook or winemaker who can put it all together to bring about the epiphany of the perfect feast, offered to old friends and newly arrived strangers alike as a gift from the heart. My cup runneth over, says the Old Testament poet.
That's the rich spirit that guides Babette's Feast, a play conceived and developed by Abigail Killeen, and written by Rose Courtney. Based closely on the famed Danish writer Isak Dinesen's novella-length short story published in Ladies Home Journal in 1950, the play originated at Portland Stage Company, and premiered off-Broadway in March 2018. Managing Director Jay Duffer directs the regional premiere at Amphibian Stage Productions with rousing dance and song celebrating earthly appetites and a heartfelt hospitality held out to our brothers and sisters from other lands and across all borders.
Scenic designer Rusty Jones lines the backdrop of the proscenium thrust stage with house shapes. Taking his cue from Dinesen's opening line, the town looks like a "toy-town of little wooden pieces painted gray, yellow, pink and many other colors." In fact, Jones creates perfectly mobile three-foot chunks of such houses for actors to carry about as they frame the story they literally bring to life.
For those who remember the Oscar-winning Danish film from 1987, the first of many modern films about the transcendent possibilities of fine cuisine, you'll be glad to know the stage adaptation is in English, so you can enjoy the comedy and literacy of the performances without the film's distracting subtitles. (Dinesen wrote in English and set her late 19th century story in the tiny Norwegian village of Berlevaag. The filmmaker moved the play to Denmark and shifted all the dialogue to Danish.)
Both film and play hone close to Dinesen's romantic vision, and the play draws heavily on the narrator's incisive poetic language in moving us through 30 years of life, love and bread-making among the austere protestants of a bygone era. Narration bounces from character to character, so we hear the tale in many voices. In short, Norwegian piety and split cod, through a wildly improbable series of events, encounter an earthy generosity and luxurious cuisine in the person of an inspired French cook, and all bliss breaks loose.
Two beautiful, pure and kindly daughters of the town's fabled founder and religious leader are courted intensely but without success in their youth, and now the aging sisters go about doing good works. Everyone is outfitted in LaLonnie Lehman's muted, perfectly fitted homespun dresses or brightly decorated officer uniforms and smart jackets.
Then one day Martine (Megan Haratine) and Philippa (Julie Rhodes) take in Babette (Sarah Rutan) to become their maid and cook. Haratine's exquisitely alabaster-and-fair-curls Martine is somehow both virginal and seductive when a handsome young officer imagines her as a mountain spirit. Rhodes' Philippa has a gorgeous soprano voice, entrancing a famous Paris opera star passing through the village, culminating in an up-close and sexy duet from Don Giovanni, no less. Talk about earthly delights.
Rutan's Babette is tall, dark-haired and humorously deliberate in her transformation from a maid of all work to a magician of flour, herbs and a magnificent turtle into the stuff dreams are stirred from. Her posture shifts from that of a servant to the take-charge gait of a commander-in-chief, as she prepares her grand feast for the founders' anniversary. All food, drink and giant turtles are left to the imagination of the audience, but the script and the actors delivering the words will make your mouth water in anticipation.
The other seven actors in Duffer's diverse and talented cast take on the roles of suitors, preachers, bakers and candlestick-makers, regardless of gender or age, and we never miss a character or cue, thanks to these precise and thoughtful thespians, listed only as Player 1 through Player 7. Each actor conveys a communal spirit in this extraordinary production, playfully theatric and generously human. We recognize many characters in one person, and that's a lovely part of the revelation Dinesen is going for in the original story.
All the actors in the show (Elly Lindsay, Detra Payne, Greg Holt, Patrick Bynane, Brendan McMahon, Melissa Duffer and Rashid Eldoma) deserve applause for their multiple roles, never mind their swelling voices and nimble footwork in operatic choruses, protestant hymns and tricky round dances on a square stage.
Opening night audiences enjoyed a charming locally catered pre-feast, which included dishes referred to in the play, plus a glass of the bubbling French champagne that ignites the humble, argumentative dinner guests in the village who believe that such "luxurious fare" is a sin against their religious beliefs.
Champagne and other fare is available in Amphibian's lobby bar for every performance, but the grace and humor of Babette's Feast is intoxication enough. Bon appétit!