“Babette’s Feast,” adapted from an Isak Dinesen short story set in the 19th century and written in the middle of the 20th, is a glorious production fit for the new millennium.

Several elements in this rendition, developed by Abigail Killeen, a Portland Stage affiliate artist, and directed by Karin Coonrod, are static and austere, which only serves to foster the production’s fluid and lavish effects. Christopher Akerlind’s minimalist set seems spartan – until the actors fill it with song, swirling choreography, knuckle-knocking percussion and sometimes poignant, sometimes hilarious performances that have six of them changing roles. The costumes by Oana Botez are similar – stark in Lutheran collared gray and white (with a few eye-popping exceptions), but also deconstructed and flowing.

These external forces provide the yin and yang of this tale of two beguiling but ascetic daughters of a Protestant minister (Sturgis Warner) in the small Norwegian town of Berlevaag, which “looks like a child’s toy town,” as Dinesen wrote. For all its liberties and blurred lines – female actors take on male characters and vice versa, and casting is without regard to race or ethnicity – the play hews sharply to her text, as opposed to the perhaps better known 1987 Danish film adaptation.

Sisters Martine (Killeen) and Philippa (Juliana Francis Kelly) carry on their father’s good works and worship, undeterred by the attentions of a dashing Swedish officer (Jeorge Bennett Watson) or a passionate French opera singer (Steven Skybell). Both men, unable to pierce the women’s fervent dedication to abstemiousness and piety, leave town dejected but forever changed. Years later, the singer, in an attempt to save his friend Babette (Michelle Hurst), a revolutionary in France’s 1848 rebellion, sends her to Berlevaag. She learns to keep house simply and cook possibly flavorlessly, out of gratitude to their generosity in sheltering her.

Juliana Francis Kelly, Abigail Killeen, Jo Mei, Sorab Wadia, Jeorge Bennett Watson, Sturgis Warner and Steven Skybell in “Babette’s Feast.” Photo by Aaron Flacke

Babette immerses herself in her refuge but, as we find, doesn’t cease to be French. In time, she has an opportunity to share her culinary artistry, and thanks to her charisma, not to mention her delectable food and sparkling wine, the populace is won over, despite their severe traditions. As Portland Stage artistic director Anita Stewart herself points out, it’s a fitting metaphor for the American immigrant experience that is under siege in Maine and elsewhere.

The performances, which also include captivating turns from Jo Mei, Elliot Nye and Sorab Wadia, are quite physical, though this is no over-the-top physical comedy. Portland Stage’s “Babette’s Feast,” rather, is a powerful, delightful story of our shared humanity and of the art that strangers have to share – if we accept it. The show’s audience, like Dinesen’s townsfolk, get a chance to see “the universe as it really is.”

Daphne Howland is a Portland-based freelance writer.

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