Recipe for magic: In ‘Birthday Candles,’ a real cake brings story to life

Chautauqua Theater Company Guest Artist Ceci Fernández, as Ernestine, removes a cake from the oven during a dress rehearsal of Noah Haidle’s Birthday Candles last Friday in Bratton Theater.
Dave Munch / photo editor
Chautauqua Theater Company Guest Artist Ceci Fernández, as Ernestine, removes a cake from the oven during a dress rehearsal of Noah Haidle’s Birthday Candles last Friday in Bratton Theater.

Noah Haidle’s play Birthday Candles has spent quite a long time in the oven.

What started as a New Play Workshop at Chautauqua in 2017 has since risen its way to Broadway in 2022 and satisfied audiences’ sweet tooth around the world.

As the show returns home for a full run, the lead character Ernestine Ashworth, played by Guest Artist Ceci Fernández, lives through nine decades on her birthday in her childhood kitchen — with a single golden butter cake baked on stage in real time at the center of it all.

In a script note, Haidle wrote: “For the purposes of sanity and theatricality, a simple butter cake is probably the best way to go.”

His specific recipe includes white sugar, flour and a stick of butter — with Ernestine adding her own ingredients of “stardust” and “atoms left over from creation.”

The play, filled with metaphors and baked with love, continues its run at 4 p.m. today in Bratton Theater, and runs through July 21.

The audience meets Ernestine on her 17th birthday, honoring a tradition handed down through generations of her family as she gathers ingredients with her mother for a special cake. As time races on, she spends the entirety of the show recreating the same cake through the years, always on her birthday. 

Props supervisor Hyla Stellhorn isn’t used to working with real desserts being made on stage, but Birthday Candles isn’t the first time baked goods have been an ingredient in a CTC production.

During the 2015 production of Our Town, a wedding cake was served to the audience during intermission, and while Chautauquans won’t be served a slice this time, the sugary scent will hopefully be wafted throughout Bratton during the play.

“I was in preview with the scenic designer, and we were sharing cake while discussing what should go on the fridge in terms of set dressing, and it’s actually a pretty good recipe,” said Donnie Woodard, assistant props supervisor. “It’s not frosted and it kind of tastes like sweet corn bread, but it’s good.”

In preparation for the show, the props team bought around 30 pounds of flour, 30 pounds of sugar, two large bottles of vanilla extract, 10 boxes of butter and around 56 eggs. 

Spread around the 1950s-inspired kitchen set are countless mixing bowls, measuring spoons and a rolling pin that fill the space. A functioning refrigerator, sink and — of course — an oven are the stars.

CTC’s Birthday Candles began rehearsals nearly three weeks ago, and since they couldn’t bake in the rehearsal space, the cast used filler ingredients, like sand and plastic Easter eggs. 

Once the team started on set and began working with real ingredients just days before previews, they nervously anticipated how the first cake would turn out. 

Somehow, magic happened.

“The script warns you from the beginning when it gives you the recipe,” Stellhorn said. “It’s like, ‘Cakes rise at very different altitudes, so be really careful about when this is going to come out.’ We got really lucky when the cake was supposed to come out. It all just worked out exactly where it needed to be.”

With a new cake being baked before the audience’s eyes every performance, there is sure to be leftovers each night. 

At one point during Birthday Candles, a character throws the cake away, tossed into a prop trash can. Once the curtain closes, cast and crew gather around, forks in hand, for the buttery dessert.

“I’m glad that people can enjoy the cake every night, if they so wish, because it’s no fun if the cake is getting thrown out,” Woodard said. 

As Ernestine flows through her life, experiencing love, loss and joy, she carries on her simple tradition of baking a cake. 

It serves as a metaphor that in the constant changes and twists in life, it’s important to appreciate what we have in our lives and hold that close — even a birthday cake.

“It’s a core part of the show,” said director Arya Shahi. “It is really happening, but just as in life, it might go wrong, and that’s no big deal. You just get through.”

Tags : Birthday CandlesCeci FernándezctcErnestine AshworthHyla Stellhornnew play workshopnoah haidletheater

The author Aden Graves

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