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Whitehall porch provides view back to 1609

Whitehall porch provides view back to 1609

Having already converted a bridge into a theater, turning a front porch into a small performance ven

Having already converted a bridge into a theater, turning a front porch into a small performance venue wasn’t that big a challenge for Martin Kelly. After all, the show must go on.

That was the rallying cry this summer at the Bridge Theater in Whitehall. Home to a small acting troupe that Kelly had formed in 2000, the Riverview Entertainment Production Company had been performing inside a small theater on a bridge spanning Lock 12 of the Champlain Canal. But during the first week of July, the state Department of Transportation ordered the bridge and Bridge Theater closed after an inspection found the 100-foot span unsafe.

‘Champlain Onward’

WHERE: Bridge Theater, Near Lock 12, Champlain Canal, Whitehall

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, through Aug. 29

HOW MUCH: $19 for adults, $17 for seniors, and $11 for children 12 and under

MORE INFO: 499-2435

The news canceled the scheduled July 11 opener of this year’s production, a historic epic written by Kelly titled “Champlain Onward.” But by the following Saturday night, July 18, the show, starring Ted DeBonis as both Samuel de Champlain and Benedict Arnold, was up and running on the porch of a nearby recreation center.

Performances continue Saturdays through the end of the month.

“We’re about a short block away from where we were,” said Kelly. “It was disappointing, but if the state says it’s unsafe you can’t argue with that. We were looking forward to our 10th anniversary season on the bridge, but at least we were able to convert a porch into a small theater with about 60 seats. It’s working out fine.”

DeBonis, a Troy native who now lives in Cambridge, loved the old theater, but the new spot also has its pluses.

“To me, the theater inside a bridge over the canal was fascinating,” said DeBonis, who played Atticus Finch in the Schenectady Civic Players production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” two years ago. “But this new venue also works pretty well. . . . It’s like you’re performing outside. We don’t have as many seats as we did on the bridge, but it’s still very nice.”

As for the show, DeBonis says it should appeal to a general audience, not just those people basking in the numerous quadricentennial celebrations marking the two 1609 incursions into what is now upstate New York, from the north by the French and Champlain, and from the south by Henry Hudson and the Dutch.

“I think it’s a play that will be liked by all members of the family,” he said. “There are a lot of things going on this summer marking the 400th anniversary of Champlain’s visit, and we’re having a lot of fun with this one. It’s not a play just for history buffs.”

Successful move

Kelly’s work begins with Champlain’s visit in 1609 to the lake that now bears his name, and continues through four centuries of history in the Whitehall area, also focusing on historical figures like Arnold and Philip Skene, the founder of Whitehall who remained loyal to the British during the American Revolution.

Joining DeBonis in the cast are Richard Harte, Rie Lee, Janet Stasio and Carol Jones.

“The play attempts to give the audience a glimpse of the events leading Champlain to the lake’s discovery, the events that changed the fate of Skenesboro [now Whitehall], and the battle on the lake when Arnold’s small fleet halted the large British fleet in 1776,” said Kelly. “I wanted to do something special to commemorate the quadricentennial, and it’s been one of my most unusual theatrical experiences and also one of my most rewarding.”

According to DeBonis, the audience should come away with a favorable impression of Arnold.

The play covers only his role in the American Revolution before he betrayed George Washington and the Colonial army at West Point later in the war.

“Arnold isn’t portrayed as an evil person, and he actually did a lot of great things for us before the betrayal,” said DeBonis. “I think that originally he was a real patriot.”

As for Champlain, DeBonis also believes audience members will come away impressed.

“I did a lot of studying for these two roles, and with all the Champlain stuff going on this year, there has been quite a bit written about him,” said DeBonis.

“This was a guy who was a very successful merchant, and made 27 trips across the ocean between France and New France. He repeatedly fought for tolerance concerning religious issues, and I get the feeling, much like many of our Founding Fathers, that he was a deist. He wasn’t all that religious, but he was very much in favor of toleration.”

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