Outside the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, eager children and resigned-looking adults find their seats. There are no lights to dim. Route 6 hums nearby. On a small patio stage flanked by low bleachers and a large banner that spells “Bugsy’s Restaurant” in colorful block letters, Little Chrys appears and begins — by saying hello to the audience.
It’s opening night at the WHAT for Kids premiere of MJ Halberstadt’s How to Cook Up a Good Idea. And it’s clear this is no ordinary play. For one thing, everyone — audience members and cast — is in it. Halberstadt, who won an Elliot Norton award for The Launch Prize in 2016, wrote this play for WHAT.
Little Chrys, played by 23-year-old Paige O’Connor, is five years old and full of innocent charm. He hopes that Bugsy’s Restaurant will earn a “Michigan star” by the end of the day.
The cast, playing children ages five to eight, runs an imaginary restaurant in a park, complete with all the drama and disaster reality television might supply: 108 stuffed animals arrive at once, and they all want scrambled eggs; an entitled feline customer says she’s allergic to plates; and the direst situation of all creeps closer and closer as the play unfolds: the infamous Birthday Cake Critic will visit Bugsy’s Restaurant and expects a cake worthy of a powerful person’s time.
Little Chrys, with the help of a magic pot of bubbles, can see and hear the audience. At intervals throughout the play, to help the characters onstage, the audience can shout out answers to questions Little Chrys asks, like “What should we put on the lunch menu?” (“Chicken salad” says one older gentleman) and “What kind of ice cream should go in the sundae?” (“Vanilla!” cries a small boy, and when an actor echoes his answer, he pumps his fist with delight.)
On stage, the children’s play has complicated rules and is tinged with real urgency — just as in real life. Despite the silliness, one can’t help but take the children seriously. When an argument threatens the delicately maintained order at Bugsy’s, the audience murmurs. When the children mention the Birthday Cake Critic, who quickly becomes a looming threat, the audience gasps with the actors.
The play, with its bright colors, stuffed animals, paper plates, and markers, has gravity. One character, a high school-age park volunteer whom the other children call the “Garbage Can Kid,” offers some wisdom at a crisis point, when the kids are considering phoning a parent for an intervention. “Grown-ups don’t always know how to get along,” says the Garbage Can Kid, whose name is actually Tick. “Especially these days.”
The children nod onstage, and the grown-ups in the audience nod, too. In the play, the children decide to handle the problem themselves. No time to waste. The Birthday Cake Critic is coming, ready or not.
“I think the message, seemingly simple, is actually quite profound,” says director Amie Lytle. “With so much tension in our world right now, I think it has this power.” The play encourages us to look at and listen to kids for some of the answers, she says. “It’s certainly something we all need to hear.”
Acting in the show are members of WHAT’s Professional Development Internship Program; O’Connor, who is a professional; and four young people from the community who alternate performances.
After the show, O’Connor has removed her cap and changed out of her overalls. Suddenly, she looks 23 again. “I know when I was a kid, vacationing on the Cape, your parents got to go out to a lot of fun things, and there weren’t a lot of things for the kids,” she says. “It’s nice to provide an opportunity for them to see a show.”
It’s fun for her, too, she says. During one part of the show, Little Chrys plays with a small truck. “I’ve been fascinated by that truck,” she says and laughs. “In acting training, they talk a lot about connecting to your inner child.” This part has given her lots of opportunities for that.
Marzipan Messina and Ruby Fisher, both 13 years old and sharing the roles of “Bee” and “BeeBee” with two other local students, reflect on the Australian accents they’ve added to their characters.
“It’s the only accent I can do,” says Messina.
They say the best part of being in the show is friendships made among cast members.
What they bring to the stage are lessons in forgiveness, cooperation, and fun. They teach us that we can come together because of something as small as a birthday cake or as big as a restaurant — or our difficult and changing world.
The event: WHAT for Kids production of How to Cook Up a Good Idea by MJ Halberstadt
The Time: Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7 p.m. through Aug. 11
The Place: Outdoors at WHAT’s Larry Phillips Performance Pavilion, 2357 Route 6, Wellfleet
The cost: $12