Cherry Arts opened their season with their second headphone walking play, The Missing Chapter; co-produced by the Wharton Studio museum, the play is based on Ithaca’s silent film past.
Audience members arrived in groups of 4 to 6 every 15 minutes next to the Stewart Park Picnic Pavilion to don our headphones (an MP3 player with earbuds) and receive our casebook, a combo program and set of historic photos (courtesy of Terry Harbin and Ithaca Made Movies). Instructed to begin by facing Cayuga Lake, we were each immersed into about an hour’s travel into Ithaca’s past and a reimagined ‘chapter’ of a missing reel of The Adventures of Beatrix Fairfax.
Immediately fairground style music played, and we were plunged back into a day of movie-making as director/producer Ted Wharton (Eric Brooks) engaged with actress Rose (Darcy Rose); then we were handed off to our narrator (the redoubtable Camilla Schade.)
Essentially a cross between a radio play and a guided walking tour, the play recovers, remembers, or reconceives the past of the ground on which we stood: the days when Stewart Park was still named Renwick Park, and possessed a dance pavilion, a picnic pavilion, a tower, a tea pavilion, a 90-foot pier, a bandstand, a working movie studio and a boathouse. Parts of that storied past remain, others are conjured up in the narration (the tower just a string square pinned to the grass.
The Wharton Brothers (Ted and Leopold) ran a movie studio that produced all manner of genre films, particularly adventure serials, the best-known being sequels to The Perils of Pauline (The Exploits of Pauline, The Romance of Elaine), starring Pearl White (Lionel Barrymore appeared in some reels, as well as Warner Oland, the original ‘Charlie Chan.’)
Beatrice Fairfax ran 15 episodes, 14 were saved and restored. Fairfax was a real-life person, the first advice columnist (‘Advice to the Lovelorn’), appearing in the Hearst papers. The Whartons spun out adventures featuring a fictional Beatrice played by Grace Darling who would investigate mysteries in the letters she received, with her newspaper colleague Jimmy Barton played by Harry Fox.
Writers Katie Marks & Aoise Stratford have seized upon the idea of a ‘Missing Chapter’ in the missing reel, ‘The Night Watchman.’ From this they have fashioned a Fairfax adventure, a play within a play that occupies the majority of the experience. Rose’s boyfriend Archie, the night watchman at the park, is missing.
The story is a lark, an all-out melodrama based on the activities of suffragettes in 1915, as a war looms across the ocean. Rose’s stern father (Dean Robinson, who also plays affable Archie) is one of several men opposed to giving women the vote. It was on the ballot in New York that fall, and Rose is a supporter. Kidnappings and peril ensue, much of it occurring around the Cascadilla Boathouse. As audience we are moved along a path that circles the park as the action unfolds.
Jennifer Herzog is a feisty, can-do Beatrice, partnered by Austin Jones as reporter Jimmy in the upbeat style familiar from later sound serials. Rose’s Rose anchors the story, and comes across as staunch, sensible and just a bit romantic. Carolyn Goelzer adds a bit of spice in a cameo as the famous Pearl White, who does her own stunts. Brooks is an ebullient Brooklyn impresario as Ted Wharton, and doubles as the shifty bird-watcher Frank.
A panoply of Ithaca-based actors add to the merriment: Susannah Berryman, Greg Bostwick, Cynthia Henderson, Godfrey Simmons and Josh Wilde; kids parts are taken by Ella Avgar and Hugh and Rowena Lloyd.)
Samuel Buggeln directed with his accustomed flair, while Norm Scott was responsible for the crucial, evocative sound design.
While The Missing Chapter continues the use of melodrama mixed with promenade of Storm Country, exploring the palimpsest of our local landscape, juxtapositions of now and then, accidents of the surround (Abba karaoke from a company party, flights of geese taking off and landing), it doesn’t retain the tension of that earlier headphone play. Then again, it has a more market-driven purpose, in support of the ongoing Stewart Park renovations.•