With a New Theater, the Shows Go On at Unadilla Theatre
State of the Arts
Henry IV, Part 1 is one of the Bard’s history plays, but at Unadilla Theatre on July 19 — one night before its opening — it was quickly turning into a near-tragedy.
The situation unfolded with the timing, dramatic arc and suspense of Shakespeare: On opening-night eve, three Vermont state building inspectors arrived at the Unadilla Theatre site in Marshfield requesting an evaluation of the newly built second theater. At the conclusion of their 11th-hour visit, the inspectors presented landowner and theater founder Bill Blachly with a written mandate detailing necessary changes and pronounced the building unsafe, thereby canceling all performances of Henry IV in the space until repairs are made.
“They handed us two pages of things we had to change before the show, most of it having to do with what we were planning for electricity and things like exits and facilities,” the 88-year-old Blachly says. “I suppose we were naïve to think that we could do another theater under the same permits as our original, but we’ve always been a seat-of-the-pants business up here, and it never really occurred to us.”
Laundry list of repairs in hand — among the requirements are electrical, plumbing and septic improvements; fire-retardant paint; exit signs and emergency exits — general contractor Caleb Pitkin set to work. A neighbor and frequent director at Unadilla Theatre, Pitkin had created what Tom Blachly, the director of this production and Bill’s son, proclaims is a perfect theater for performing Shakespeare: a black-box thrust stage that mimics traditional Shakespearean performance designs. Despite his small theater’s rural setting, Bill Blachly had long wanted to expand its repertoire, and he saw a new building as a perfect solution. (Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Yeomen of the Guard is playing alongside Henry IV in the original, barnlike theater.)
“We wanted to be able to do a greater variety of things,” Bill Blachly explains. “Our musicals are very successful, but there are a lot of less popular pieces that I really want to do. This was an opportunity to try something different.”
Or, as Tom Blachly puts it, “one stage for the moneymaker shows and one stage for the cutting-edge and experimental theater.”
As the new stage was designed with a Shakespearean repertoire in mind, the failed inspection was a major blow. Still, even without a stage, the show must go on. The Blachlys located a large tent at Goddard College that was available Thursday and Saturday nights and quickly shuffled costumes and props to the location just south of Calais.
On Saturday night, only a few extra bumps and rustles backstage hinted at the disruption caused by a last-minute theater swap. A minimal set design eased the transition, allowing Ellie Blachly’s hand-sewn costumes to play a leading role in a rambunctious and well-rehearsed performance. Her ensemble of early-15th-century designs set the scene quite literally; huge geometric paisleys and long, flowing robes executed in rich silks and brocades denoted the royals, while textures and colorful doublets dressed the lowlife tavern-goers in Eastcheap.
“I took my cue from artwork, but very much based my palette on the cost of producing each color or material,” says Ellie Blachly — Bill’s daughter. “Indigo was a very expensive color to produce, so I dressed only the royals in blue. Since people expressed status and wealth through clothing, I really based my costuming on a person’s class, rather than the importance of their character.”
She made all the shoes in the show, too, mostly because “they’re easy to make and impossible to buy.” Likewise with the floor-length sleeves and tunics of the upper class, although Blachly’s heftiest achievement — literally — was a Dacron “fat suit” made for the portly, drunken Falstaff (played by David Klein). Measuring 63 inches around the waist, Falstaff’s gut is the frequent butt of Shakespeare’s jokes, and Klein played his part to perfection opposite the sprightly Prince Henry (Ian Young). Although it’s part of Shakespeare’s tetralogy chronicling three British rulers, Henry IV, Part 1 feels more like a comedic variety show than a historical drama. If the dialogue among the royals feels stilted at times, it only serves to heighten the comedy of bawdy tavern dwellers Falstaff and his seedy entourage.
In a phone call on Monday afternoon, Bill Blachly reports the play will henceforth be performed at the new theater, after all, thanks to a patron’s large donation. The contribution sped up a process that he anticipated would be “a long go,” dependent on raising additional funds.
“I don’t know when — or if — the state inspectors will come back, but we are definitely going to be at the new theater on Thursday,” Blachly vows.
Although cast and crew adjusted nicely to the tent at Goddard, the improvised proscenium stage was not the same as a traditional thrust stage for performing Shakespeare, notes Tom Blachly.
“It was a dream come true directing the dress rehearsals in the new space before it was closed down,” he says. “It really is an incredible place for Shakespeare, and for the more cutting-edge theater we have in mind for it.”
Bill Blachly remains undeterred by the delayed opening weekend; after all, this isn’t the first time he’s reinvented a project to suit his needs. The current site of both Unadilla theaters stands on what was once Blachly’s dairy farm.
“I milked cows here from 1956 to 1984; then, when the cow business fell apart, we looked for something else to do and decided to turn the barn into a theater,” he says.
Blachly’s dramatic enterprise has stayed consistently in the black for the past 27 years, so he envisioned a similarly self-supporting model for the new stage, he says. The choice to build another theater in a decidedly rural location may seem curious, but Blachly’s son says it’s in character for his father.
“It’s amazing that, at 88 years old, he’s still thinking about new theaters,” Tom Blachly says. “He never stops, but this is what he wants to do. He wouldn’t be happy if he didn’t have a project.”