WELLFLEET — A live scarecrow tumbles, sways, and hangs — precarious and loose-limbed — high above a field. Farmhands wildly flip ears of corn as crops “multiply.” A unicycle seems to till soil, red scarves become a barn fire’s flames, animal puppets dance.
The circus has come to town. This summer, Cirque by the Sea’s latest production, Roots: A Farm to Circus Show, is entertaining all ages in Wellfleet rather than at the troupe’s usual home at North Truro’s Highland Center in the Cape Cod National Seashore.
With their tent due to be displaced by demolition work on decrepit buildings from the long-closed North Truro Air Force Base, performers from Payomet Performing Arts Center’s circus fruitlessly searched for over a year for a new location. Potential spots proved unavailable or under construction, and Outer Cape property too expensive.
Then, earlier this year, a welcome invitation came from Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater Executive Director Christopher Ostrom to work together on family programming.
In what circus program director Gabrielle “Teddy” Ment calls “a dream come true,” the troupe now has an 80-by-50-foot tent alongside the main theater, taking the place of the usual WHAT For Kids shows there. The tent is 20 feet larger than the one at Payomet, with a more central Route 6 location, a dressing room, and indoor access, Ment says.
That’s the hub for weekday circus-skills youth camps; then, three evenings a week, four professional actors perform Roots. Bleachers and chairs face the setting of a tall red barn, with hay bales and “crops” pulled in as needed. Metal scaffolding soars close to the 18-feet-high roof to anchor ropes and pulleys for the trapeze, hoop, scarves, and straps that come into daring play as the farming story unfolds.
“The WHAT location is just perfect, and they’ve been nothing but generous,” says Ment, noting the collaboration matches the circus’s focus on community and teamwork.
“I can’t tell you how thankful we are that WHAT came to our rescue,” says Payomet Executive Director Kevin Rice.
Ostrom believes collaboration is the key to Cape arts organizations recovering from the pandemic. The circus relocation is part of a summer schedule that also includes WHAT producing The Pickleball Wars, a new play by Rice (who was a cofounder of WHAT in 1985) that will run from Aug. 11 to Sept. 9 on the indoor stage, and a co-production of Betrayal this fall with Wellfleet’s Harbor Stage Company.
Roots is theatrical, too, with performers offering broad comedy, slapstick, exaggerated expressions, and rousing dances among storytelling tricks that keep youngsters’ attention while teaching them about sustainable farming. Troupe members form a human pyramid and are engaging puppeteers, manipulating pecking hens, a cavorting, sneakered pig, and a friendly cow with a pink tongue long enough to lick children in the front rows.
Cirque plots feature a moral theme, usually environment-related, say Ment and actor-director Eleanor Getz — reflecting their own activist passions. Past stories addressed gender equality, climate change, and recycling; Roots is about agriculture and the farm-to-table movement.
Cape-based juggler Trevor Pearson helped create Payomet’s circus 11 years ago. Cape resident Ment and New York-based Getz joined two years later after discovering the North Truro opportunity for the duo talents they’d developed in 2014 at Vermont’s New England Center for Circus Arts. The two now manage Cirque’s business side, and this year they brought in circus-school friend Copper Santiago, who had been performing internationally.
In the off-season, all four have performed on the Cape and elsewhere. Ment spent some winters working at a California farm. Getz joined her in 2020, and they were inspired to create Roots. Getz wrote the script with input from Cape farmers and other troupe members but saved the theme for the right post-pandemic combination of performer skills and larger audiences.
The story is told through offstage narration and acted out by the cast through comedy and circus acts set to music. Old MacDonald (Getz) passes on his farm and traditional wisdom about soil, pollination, compost, and seasons to his son (Pearson). But the son decides to grow only corn for high-fructose corn syrup.
“He’s making a lot of money for a while, and then things start to devolve and he has to take a step back and look at what he’s doing and why he’s doing it,” Getz says. The message in Roots is “reminding us to cultivate the land with care and reap what we sow,” she says.
Young children might not process all the farming details, but the message isn’t heavy-handed. It’s mimed with flair and sometimes interactive humor by the four performers, who — in overalls, white shirts, and sneakers — each use their skills to defy gravity. Pearson makes multiple balls representing plants and pins painted like ears of corn whiz through the air in rapid arcs, and he juggles them through complicated maneuvers with Santiago.
Santiago, Getz, and Ment are all mischievous, playful farmhands. Besides juggling, Santiago’s contributions to the troupe are artful prop-making plus unicycle and aerial stunts — even hanging upside-down and climbing over the unicycle in mid-air.
Getz and Ment amaze with their acrobatics. Getz makes a rope dance, then climbs it to hang high above the floor. Ment swings up to, around, and through an elevated hoop and later gracefully dances mid-air with only scarves holding her aloft. The two clown through a double-trapeze act, with Getz acing the added challenge of wearing scarecrow mask, hat, and costume.
“Every year, we remember our audience is often the same and we want to show them something new, a fresh perspective,” Getz says. “This is our time to shine.”
This fall, Cirque will bring Roots and circus lessons to area schools in an expanding outreach program that Ment dreams could inspire local-food curricula. Mirroring the farm show’s theme of “creating an ecosystem” for success, Getz notes that Truro Central School provided Roots early rehearsal space.
“We’re really thankful for the community in Wellfleet and Truro,” she says.”They’re open to what we’re doing and help us. Hopefully, we give back a little bit.”
Farm Story by the Sea
The event: Payomet Cirque by the Sea’s Roots: A Farm to Circus Show
The time: Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays through Sept. 1 at 6 p.m.
The location: WHAT for Kids Stage at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, 2357 Route 6
The cost: $25, $15 for children, at tickets.payomet.org