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Rascal Harry Tracy seizes BPA

Melodrama mines events in island history.

Doe-eyed Emily Kight, dressed in a pink crinoline confection, stands stock still while Guy Sidora as villain Harry Tracy, disguised in a beret, circles our heroine with a predatory sneer that would do the Big Bad Wolf proud.

“I would like to buy some of your lovely strawberries,” he says, with a bogus French accent. “I’ve never in my life experienced anything so very...luscious. We Frenchmen are famous for our, shall we say, our sense when something is...ripe. For the picking, eh?”

The actors lay it on with a trowel, but the over-the-top quality is just right in “Harry Tracy, A Bainbridge Bandit!” – perhaps the first original melodrama based on island history.

The brainchild of island improv actor John Ellis, who wrote the script with Seattle’s Andrew Shields, the work is based on accounts of a visit paid to the island by Harry Tracy, the most notorious criminal of his day.

Ellis found his subject mentioned in passing in the late Katy Warner’s “A History of Bainbridge Island.” More research revealed that Tracy was a personable – if ruthless – convict who made his way to Puget Sound after escaping from Oregon State penitentiary in June 1902.

Eluding what still is the biggest manhunt in the nation’s history for more than two months, Tracy moved from outlying farm to outlying farm, forcing the inhabitants to shelter him – and, it seems, charming not a few of the female inhabitants in the process.

“He was very polite,” Ellis said. “He would make them feed him and wash his clothes, and then he’d read the P-I to see what people were saying about him.”

On July 5, 1902, Tracy made his way to Bainbridge Island on a hijacked fishing boat. After putting ashore, he commandeered a farm, ate a few meals, read about his own exploits, and, after tying up his reluctant hosts, forced hired hand John Anderson to row him back to Seattle.

The history was so fascinating Ellis knew he had found his subject:

“I thought, ‘Wow, one of the biggest villains in history, here on Bainbridge Island.’’’

Ellis teamed up with Shields, the Improv’s official pianist, who had composed a musical version of “Reefer Madness” for Seattle’s Unexpected Productions.

“He is our genius musician for the Improv,” Ellis said, “who can sit down and play piano and make up songs on the spot.”

In addition to composing the music and lyrics, Shields helped write the script.

Enlarging on true melodrama – a popular form of theater in the late 18th and 19th centuries that featured stock characters and dramatic plot twists – the pair introduced elements of musical comedy.

“We do have melodrama’s stock characters, but we’ve introduced some shades of grey,” Ellis said. “We’ve updated the form – for example, we have songs that relate to the plot, not like the ‘oleo’ of melodrama, when the action stops for an irrelevant song.”

While Ellis and Shields have penned a work likely to appeal to a broad audience, glancing references to the island’s geographic and social landscapes are likely to provoke chuckles from islanders.

As Kight quips, “It’s rare we have a gentleman on the island. Usually we have loggers, farmers and...lawyers.”

If successful, the play may be the beginning of an annual summer melodrama series, Ellis says.

He hasn’t been to rehearsals, but says he will soon stop over “to see what they’ve done with our baby.”

“Now it’s out of my hands and staff over there is doing what they do so well,” Ellis said. “You have to let it go and let their talents take it on.”

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Bainbridge Performing Arts presents “Harry Tracy, A Bainbridge Bandit!,” July 7-11, 15, 17-18, 22-25, 29, 31 and Aug. 1 at the Playhouse. Performances are at 7 p.m., with 3 p.m. weekend matinees.

Tickets are $15 for adults, $12 for students, seniors and active military, available at the Playhouse or at 842-8569.

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