You will not catch a glimpse of caviar perched atop a blini or the steam rising from a bowl of turtle soup, nor will you detect the scent of foie gras and truffle sauce or rum cake wafting toward you during Taproot Theatre Company’s production of “Babette’s Feast.”
How could you? Food is rarely credible onstage, even when the menu is one-tenth this complex. In director Scott Nolte’s staging, the plates are bare, the food imaginary and the dramatic stakes of a community of ascetics who’ve resolved to take no pleasure in the lavish meal are similarly missing.
That’s hardly the fault of Nolte or anyone involved in Taproot’s generally pleasant production. In its 2018 premiere at Portland Stage Company in Maine, and a later off-Broadway production, there was no actual food either. (Somewhere, a prop master shudders at the thought of wrangling the necessary consumables to pull off re-creating this menu night after night.) But given the scene’s importance and its onstage impossibilities, why adapt it for theater at all?
Conceived by Abigail Killeen and written by Rose Courtney, the play is based on Isak Dinesen’s 1950 short story, though it’s a safe bet most of the affection for “Babette’s Feast” stems from the 1987 film adaptation directed by Gabriel Axel. The Oscar winner for best foreign language film, the art house crossover hit is one of the key texts of the food film microgenre alongside “Tampopo” and “Big Night.”
The thrill of seeing Babette’s opulent menu come to life is key to the film’s success. On stage, the moment’s gravity never reaches a simmer, and there’s not nearly enough drama in the rest of Dinesen’s story to supplement it.
Flashbacks detail the history of the characters in 19th-century Berlevåg, a small Norwegian town nestled on a fjord. In Courtney’s adaptation, these scenes are mostly exposition dumps delivered by a chorus.
We learn of sisters Martine (Jenny Vaughn Hall) and Philippa (April Poland), 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 arm’s length. Friendly but overwhelmingly pious, Martine and Philippa reject earthly pleasure with only slightly less vigor than their father.
Decades later, Babette (Pam Nolte) arrives at the unmarried sisters’ home. A refugee from Paris, she’s willing to work as their unpaid housekeeper and cook, and she dutifully takes to preparing the bland bread soup and split cod dishes that constitute the local diet.
Nolte’s performance, serene but knowing, suggests a world of unspoken experience hidden beneath the placid surface. Dinesen’s story notes, Babette “appeared to be a beggar; she turned out to be a conqueror,” and Nolte has the quiet command to reorient the play around Babette, even as the character largely stays in the background.
“Babette’s Feast” marks Taproot’s return to live performances after a nearly two-year absence caused by the pandemic. The show was originally slated for a spring 2020 opening, and Mark Lund’s set has been sitting on stage waiting since then. The attractive, monochromatic scenic design captures the quaint charm of the isolated setting, and the ensemble works to develop a picture of a community quite satisfied with its stark lifestyle.
The climactic feast, planned after Babette receives a windfall and insists on preparing a French meal for members of the congregation, challenges that outlook — or it should. In Taproot’s production, the austerity feels much more potent than the extravagance.
At the meal, Pitman’s army officer is the one outsider in attendance, and his awestruck performance is a worthy effort at communicating the wonder of the experience. Still, the staging can’t conjure magic out of empty serving dishes, and there’s a hole where the story’s climax ought to be, resulting in a theatrical meal that’s more split cod than foie gras.