The art of giving and living

Babette’s Feast opens at Seattle’s Taproot Theatre

babettes feast

Photo: Erik Stuhaug / Taproot Theatre
Pam Nolte (right), a founding member of the Taproot Theatre, stars in the leading role in Babette’s Feast.

The Norwegian American

In Februray of 2020, The Norwegian American was happy to learn that the state version of Babette’s Feast was opening the following month at the Taproot Theatre, a beloved fixture of Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood.  With tickets ordered for opening night, I sat down with the production director, Scott Nolte, and Pam Nolte, who was set to star in the lead role of Babette. The husband-and-wife team were founding members of the theater company with four friends in 1976 and have watched it grow from humble beginnings to Seattle’s largest mid-sized theater company. 

Like many of us, the Noltes knew the story of Babette’s Feast from the beloved 1987 Danish movie based on the 1958 story by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen). It was the first Danish film based on a Blixen story and the first Danish film to win an Oscar for Best International Film. When the Noltes became aware of stage play script about four years ago, their creative wheels were set in motion.

The story

Babette’s Feast is about a community reviving itself and finding its way back to its core values,” said Pam.

The central character, is a refugee from the counter-revolutionary bloodshed in 1871 in Paris and finds safety in a remote village in northern Norway. She brings nothing with her but a single lottery ticket and her skills as a chef. She is taken in by two elderly sisters, Martine and Phillipa, the humbles daughters of a deceased pastor, who cannot offer her more than a roof over her head and an unpaid position as a cook. But everyone makes the best of it, and with everything Babette brings to the sisters and the community, their lives are ultimately enriched.

“There is a refugee crisis in our country now as then,” said Scott. “It wasn’t that long ago that we didn’t want to let in Italians, Irish, and Jews. We need to remember our past today, find our generosity. We need to not be afraid of something that is different.”

But in the beginning, Babette is not accepted by the pious Lutheran community in northern Norway, because she is a Catholic, or a “papist” as she is derogatorily called.

We learn through flashbacks that she has been sent to the little village  by a famous French baritone, who nearly a half-century had taken respite and fallen in love with the beautiful Philippa and her angelic voice. 

Parallel to this story, is the love of a young Swedish officer for Martine, equally lovely as her sister. 

But both outsiders do not fit into the remote, insular community, and they are forced to sacrifice their love. 

The two sisters embody a beauty that is both physical and spiritual. But while neither is permitted to follow their hearts’ desire and realize their talents, they never lose their faith in life, as they remain at home to serve their father and their community. 

Babette’s Feast is perhaps, above all, the story of an artist and the role of art in our lives as a redemptive force. Babette never loses sight of her own gift, and with her resourcefulness, she is able to improve the lives of the two sisters. And when she learns she has won the lottery, she wants to give back to them by giving her all—literally—by preparing a full French dinner in all its glory for them and the community.

“A great artist is never poor,” says Babette—and we understand this when her dinner is served. 

After many years, the young Swedish officer, now a general, returns, for the feast and to come to terms with his past He is the one who is able to recognize it for what it is, an extraordinary spread of the finest French cuisine

But for the others in the little community, the dinner is a discovery. Having come to the table in fear of “witch’s sabbath,” they gather around Babette’s table in a new experience of the joie de vivre she brings. 

It is a healing and redemptive moment to experience the beauty of Babette’s artistry, the sensuality of her magnificent food and drink, the abundance ofr generosity. Old resentments and prejudices fade away in the joy of the moment, and they leave with a new love and appreciation for one another.

babettes feast

Photo: Erik Stuhaug / Taproot Theatre
The two kindly sisters grant Babette her wish to serve a “French dinner,” which is enjoyed by their guests. A former suitor, now a celebrated general, plays a central role in describing the feast.

The stage play

Ultimately, COVID-19 presented its own challenge, and the Taproot production of Babette’s Feast was delayed nearly 20  months after Seattle and King County went into a lockdown. But as the old saying goes, if you are waiting for something good, you can never wait too long, and I was there for the dress rehearsal at the Taproot on Nov. 9 . It was not disappointing.

I knew we were supposed to be in Norway when I saw the backdrop of the mountains and fjord. And while the stage props were minimal, the piano music of Edvard Grieg with its folk melodies help set the mood and transition from scene to scene.

And while preparing a real-life gourmet dinner to consume onstage was unfeasible and out of scope, story theater technique is effectively employed to convey the experience of the feast. With an explosion of color, a beautiful table is set with beautiful china, crystal, and brass goblets that show the sparkle of the utensils. We learn about the food through the guests’ comments—instead of seeing and smelling. And it works, with a dialogue that is lively and well-paced.

The two sisters appear just as beautiful on the stage as we envision them from reading the story, and Phillipa’s voice is truly sublime. Wigs and makeup are used to portray them in their youth and old age, and even though the props are so minimal, there is an authentic sense to the production.  

With very strong acting on all parts, Pam Nolte is the star of the show in her portrayal of Babette. Her French accent is impeccable, she emulates the mannerisms of a Frenchwoman in a believable way, and she makes us develop and affection for characters during the 90 minutes the play runs.

Takeaways for today

“Art is for experiencing,” Pam said. “It should not be crated up to be given away.” She lamented that in our hectic lives, entertaining seems to have become more about social status than hospitality. We are losing the stories of our elders, as intergenerational gatherings have become less common. We are losing the pleasure of sitting down together, slowing eating, and celebrating. We need to make room in our schedules to sit back and enjoy life.

“When we don’t plan anything to give away to friends, that’s a different kind of poverty” Pam said.

In the end, the story of Babette’s Feast is about mastering the art of giving and living. It’s an important message for us today.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 19, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.