NEW YORK — Pope Francis’s favorite film, the 1987 classic Babette’s Feast, is now a stage play, opening last month off-Broadway in a new, stripped-down production that focuses on storytelling rather than overly sensationalized entertainment.
Directed by Karin Coonrod, the show tells the story of a French refugee who seeks asylum in a small Norwegian village in the Arctic Circle, where she prepares an elegant feast for its residents — and, in the process, manages to heal old wounds and break down barriers caused by suspicion and mistrust.
Francis has frequently referenced the film in interviews, and in his 2016 apostolic exhortation, he cited it as an example of discovering joy that provides a foretaste of heaven. “We can think of the lovely scene in the film Babette’s Feast, when the generous cook receives a grateful hug and praise: ‘Ah, how you will delight the angels!’” Francis writes.
The new production, starring Michelle Hurst of Orange is the New Black, is playing an open-ended run at the Theatre at Saint Clement’s in New York, and in an interview with Crux, Coonrod says it’s an opportunity for people of faith, or no faith at all, to have an experience of “infinite grace.”
Crux: Tell us a bit about the history of bringing this beloved classic to the stage.
Coonrod: I was invited into the project by Abigail Killeen (conceiver) and Rose Courtney (playwright) in 2013. They had been at work on it for some five years. Upon my reading of Rose’s play and the original short story by Isak Dinesen, I was immediately struck by the story being set in northern most Norway, a little fishing village called Berlevåg, not in Denmark, as in Gabriel Axel’s 1987 movie.
Berelvåg, a fierce landscape in the Arctic Circle, a seemingly god-forsaken place, seemed to drive the point home even more that a miracle in this place is a huge surprise. It deepens the epiphany of the General and the impact for the audience. I immediately proposed a journey to this place to sense the place and bring that visceral experience into the making of the play.
Babette’s Feast is known for being, well, a sumptuous feast. You’ve stripped it down focusing on the story with a minimalist staging and interpretation. Why did you decide to go this route?
It is indeed a sumptuous feast fit for kings and queens, but the food and its stunning preparation is a means to an end—it is not the thing itself. The film can show close-ups of the food and of the faces partaking of this meal. That is one of the joys of film.
In the theater, however, we can do a different thing: we can emphasize the experience of the entire community of living breathing actors from the glorious diversity of mankind around the table. It is an eschatological wedding banquet set at the edge of space and time. Hence a table with actual food and decorated china plates seems distracting to me.
The story is not about wealth and achieving its comforts, but rather about an experience of deep festive time in which the presence of the other is witnessed. A fractured community comes into a healing place as a result of an act of extravagant giving. The giving is infectious and reaches out to its audience in that very moment.
The theater is a mysterious encounter: It strikes an eternal chord in its very ephemeral nature. A line in the story which is not in the play, but informs all my thinking: “Time itself had merged into eternity.”
The film and short story have long been a favorite of people of faith — in fact, it’s Pope Francis’s favorite film. Why do you think Christians, in particular, have latched on to this story with such intensity?
It is about infinite grace. (I must say that my close Jewish friends have also loved the experience of seeing and hearing this play!) One of my favorite lines from the story is also in the play: “The vain illusions of this earth had dissolved before their eyes like smoke, and they had seen the universe as it really is.” Stunning.
You’ve staged this, however, in New York, where folks aren’t necessarily going to the theater to be preached to or for an experience of faith. What do you think —or hope — will draw them to this production?
The play is a fable to be read on many levels. It can be enjoyed for its entertainment and imagination. It is about the making of art and its gift to the culture. It is an encounter with the presence of the other, beyond what all of us together imagine.
Babette is a refugee and the theme of welcoming the stranger is an important part of this story. What message do you believe this show has to offer in our current political and cultural climate?
Babette herself is a fictional character, after all. (The real chef of the Café Anglais in the 19th century was a man.) And I knew immediately that Babette should be played by an African American woman. A great artist incognito, she enters the play as a maid and a fugitive and leaves it as an angel of grace.
It is an often-told tale: the most remarkable divas of twentieth-century America began their lives subservient and ended as household names for their unforgettable music: Billie, Mahalia, Ella, Aretha, Sarah, Nina…..
We, too, are asked to acknowledge what is beyond the physical embodiment of earthly things. I am reminded by something St. Paul said in the book of Hebrews: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Strangers emerge unawares from the invisible. It is our business to see more.