Wednesday, January 29, 2020

“Babette’s Feast”: One Fit For Royalty

On the top level of set designer Mike Buckley’s multi level set stands a long table filled with pots and pans, jars and condiments, cooking utensils and room for supplies for the famous feast that Babette of  “Babette’s Feast” will be preparing.

Yolanda Marie Franklin
It is at this savory feast filled with abundance and humility for all humanity, as written by Karen Dinesen, that will long be remembered by those in attendance years after the foods are digested, and those who indulged will resume their simple and pious ways of being. 

Danish author Karen Blixen, who goes under the pen name Isak Dinesen (The movie “Out of Africa”, was based on her notes when she lived there), penned her short story, “Babette’s Feast” in 1958.

It’s a tale about a tightly knit Protestant family, head of household Patriarch (Jason Heil) and daughters Philippa and Martine living in a remote Norwegian coastal town (“the very edge of the world”) where the sun rises and sets on the routines of heir daily tasks. 

Lamb’s Players Theatre under the knowing direction of Robert Smyth who notes this current adaptation by Rose Courtney is based on the short story version, not the film version.  It was conceived and developed by Abigail Killeen.

Also as noted by director Smyth, the presentation recently seen uses a ‘presentational story-theatre style with an ensemble company’. Nobody does ensemble like Lamb’s. This West Coast premiere will be running through Feb. 16th.  

French refugee, Babette (Yolanda Marie Franklin), a former chef at the celebrated Café Anglais in Paris fled her homeland during the outbreak of civil strife in 1871 for fear of her life

She goes undercover in Norway, and some thirty- five years after we meet Philippa and Martine (and with a letter from famous French Opera star and noted baritone, Achille Papin explaining her dire circumstances), Babette finds herself in the village of Berlevaag, accepting work as a maid for the now middle -aged sisters Philippa and Martine.

Kerry Meads, Deborah Gilmour Smyth and Yolanda Marie Franklin
Long after their deceased and strong willed father put the cow-bosh on both of their suitors and quite unaware of Babette’s cooking prowesses, they give the French Woman carte blanche to do her magic in the kitchen and keep the household running.

Not knowing anything of her past, and in particular of those who helped her to become this famous chef, she quietly builds relationships with the town’s devout community as well as the trust of the sisters. The two even more pious now, find themselves old maids left to carry on the teachings of their father who was the spiritual leader of the ascetic Protestant sect. 

Lamb’s production shifts back and forth over a period of 49 years. In a series vignettes and in changing ensemble voices and groupings, sometimes in song, tell us their story.  
(LtoR) Rick Meads, Ross Hellwig, Rachael VanWormer, Jason Heil, Omri Schein, and Charles Evans, Jr.
We catch glimpses of the sisters Caitie Grady and Rachael VanWormer as their younger somewhat engaging selves, and Kerry Meads and Deborah Gilmour Smyth as the now older and settled spinsters. (All four also also play multiple roles, show the depth of this highly regarded ensemble.)

Smyth’s casting, using many of Lamb’s Company Member’s, is as good as it gets with characters young and old alike as Ross Hellwig the young and rogue cavalry officer Lorens Lowenheilm in pursuit of young Martine (Rachael VanWormer) only to be turned away by her father. He is a charming devil. Later he will return much wiser (Rick Meads) and gentler when he comes face to face with the older more introverted Martine (Kerry Meads).

Young Philippa (Caitie Grady) is courted by Papin (Charles Evans Jr.), a young opera star who hears her singing and wants to give her lessons. Together in a series of voice and singing lesson’s she takes from the vacationing singer, the real husband and wife team soar in gorgeous arias from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” as their voices reach new heights. He wants more of their romance and she is not inclined to leave her father’s house.

Fast forward, and in a turn of good fortune Babette wins the local French lottery and offers to make a true French meal for the entire township.
Yolanda Marie Franklin, Rachael VanWormer, Kerry Meads and Deborah Gilmour Smyth
With money she recently won from said lottery, she asks the sisters permission if she can entertain as she did in the past by preparing a banquet in honor of the hundredth anniversary of the birthday of the sister’s father.

After they give the OK she spends every last coins to get what is needed for the feast. She first begins by sending her assistants off to gather the ingredients for turtle soup, stuffed quail, Campaign and caviar.

She invites the entire community to celebrate, a custom most are not used to according to their religious modesty. Not wanting to seem ungrateful, they participate and are amazed at how much fun they can have with a little bubbly under their belts.

That brings me back to Mike Buckley’s set design.  It is now set into motion by talented Yolanda Marie Franklin as the quiet and spiritual center Babette, the world famous Chef who begins preparing an exquisite and sensory meal by going through the motions and making every fine tuned hand gesture and facial expression to tell the story of how blessed she is without uttering a word.   

Not having a drop of food in front of her, and with only utensils, pots and pans she stands above the rest (who setting the table for the feast), and is able to convey to the audience just how the renouned chef, to the last sprinkling of seasonings, works her magic. It also says volumes about the actor as well. 
The Ensemble
The ensemble, including those mentioned, Omri Schein (for some comic relief he does so well), Ross Hellwig, Rick Meads (returning after a long hiatus) Kerry Meads, Deborah Gilmour Smyth, Rachael VanWormer, Jason Heil, Caitie Grady and Charles Evens, Jr. do double, triple duty changing roles as easily as slipping into a jacket or taking a hat off, or stomping feet to create atmosphere of love strength and dignity.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention Cellist Diana Elledge playing the oft times haunting and original music written by Ms. Smyth.
Charles Evans, Jr and Caitie Grady
Completing the credits are Patrick Duffy’s sound design, Nathan Pierson’s lighting design, Jemima Dutra’s costumes, (team member Jim Chovik for making the mock turtle soup served after the show) and not to be overlooked, as this is the year of the Stage Manager, a round of applause goes to Maria Mangiavellano who has been with Lamb’s for as long as I can remember. They all contribute to making this charmed first production of the season worthy of a look-see. 

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Feb. 16th
Organization: Lamb’s Players Theatre
Phone: 619-437-6000
Production Type: Drama
Where: 1142 Orange Ave, Coronado, CA
Ticket Range: $28.00 to $78.00
Photo Credit: Ken Jacques

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