In college, Zach Appelman heard voices. And they convinced him that he was on the right track. They came to him through speakers and ear buds: the honeyed sounds of great Shakespeareans, actors such as Lawrence Olivier and John Gielgud, reciting — sometimes singing, in that master-
thespian manner — the poetry of “Hamlet” or “Macbeth.” They imparted to an eager young acting student at a library carrel an understanding of the legacy of a great oratorical tradition.
“I could spend hours listening to their recorded performances,” Appelman said recently, in a coffee shop on Capitol Hill. “I think there’s a lot to learn from them. They weren’t afraid to make the language as big as it needed to be. Because you can’t pretend you’re not speaking it in verse.”
Appelman’s reverence for those vanished voices is clear the moment he opens his mouth on the Folger Theatre stage as the title character in “Henry V,” the role he wraps up this weekend, in what has become the highest-grossing production in Folger history. A significant share of the credit belongs, of course, to director Robert Richmond and the robust supporting cast he’s assembled in the fine production he conceived. But it is also fair to say that the show would not be half as watchable without the contribution of a lead player who, at the tender age of 27, reveals himself to be a classical theater star.
Richmond and Folger managed to locate that rarest of stage breeds: the contemporary actor who, through both technique and presence, can carry a Shakespeare play. “He came in and knocked it out of the park,” Richmond said of Appelman’s New York audition. “He asked if I wanted to hear it with an English or American accent. He looked like Henry V and stood there and had a charisma and physical bearing. Doesn’t happen very often. I was all aquiver. I couldn’t focus for the rest of the day.”
Richmond’s account of his visceral response isn’t surprising. It’s not only directors who can tell you how wide apart are the instances in which an actor takes on one of the monumental Shakespeare roles and creates a towering impression. Even in a town as Shakespeare-conscious as Washington, with at least five companies — traditional, movement-based and experimental — giving their interpretations of the canon on a regular basis, the encounters with anything close to greatness in those big, career-defining roles are few.
As truly complete performances in the top-of-the-mount parts, one summons memories of a small bushelful of D.C. evenings, at Shakespeare Theatre Company and Folger: Michael Hayden in “Richard II”; Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth; Patrick Page’s Iago; Holly Twyford playing Viola; Stacy Keach as Lear; Wallace Acton’s Richard III, Mark Nelson’s Shylock, Suzanne Bertish as Cleopatra.
Add to these, now, Zach Appelman in “Henry V.” What these performances share is a generosity of intellect, one that is fully accessible to an audience, and an embrace of the grandeur — without seeming showily grand — of Shakespeare’s greatest tragic, comic and historical characters.
Page, now in rehearsals in the title role in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s forthcoming “Coriolanus,” concurs with my impression, that this quality isn’t acquired by study, exactly. “I think it’s hard to teach, I really do,” observes the veteran actor, who does teach Shakespeare to young actors and in August finished an 18-month stint in the decidedly non-Shakespearean Broadway role he originated, that of the Green Goblin in “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.”
“I think it comes from personal initiative. Some people have bigger personalities than others and feel more comfortable with it,” he adds, summing up the effort of projecting bigness of personality with a clarifying word: “You’re doing something that requires an enormous amount of ‘size.’ ”
Although Appelman is relatively compact in stature, size is what he has. Where does it come from? No one seems to know, not even Appelman. “Zach had the twinkle in his eye” is how Janet Griffin, Folger’s artistic producer, describes it. “He’s youthful for his years, and we were all struck by his ability to hold attention, to get you to really listen to him.” At his audition, he delivered the “Save ceremony” speech in the army’s encampment at Agincourt, “which is just a really tough speech,” Griffin says, “and he just went to a different place than the other actors.”
As Griffin indicates, it’s a know-it-when-you-see-it sort of quality. Appelman, who graduated from Yale Drama School in 2010 and spent a year on Broadway playing soldiers and other small roles in “War Horse,” couches it in terms of raw desire. “I don’t know how much of it is an innate skill, but I have an appetite for it,” he says, allowing himself on this Sunday afternoon to speak more than he normally would before a matinee.
That appetite developed fairly slowly. He grew up in Palo Alto, Calif., the son of a lawyer and a schoolteacher. “The arts are incredibly important to them,” he says. While athletics occupied him way more than plays, he found that he loved performing in the dramatic reenactments arranged by his world history teacher, Mike McGovern, at Palo Alto High. “He sparked a love of history in me,” Appelman says. “I didn’t think I was doing theater.”
It was at the University of California at Santa Barbara that he began to suspect he might be an actor. “It felt out of left field, and it made sense,” he said of his decision, auditioning to be a theater major in the bachelor of fine arts program, and getting in. Even then, classical roles were not a path. “It’s not like the first time I was doing a Shakespeare monologue it was the goal,” he says.
But he listened to recordings of the likes of Judi Dench and Ian McKellen and paid closer attention to Shakespeare’s words, and an affinity grew. Of course at both Santa Barbara and later at Yale, there would be a tremendous amount of contemporary work, too. (Appelman recently filmed a small role opposite Daniel Radcliffe in “Kill Your Darlings,” about the poet Allen Ginsberg.) Still, he has carved a trail in the classics: His first role out of drama school was Tybalt, for director Gale Edwards’s “Romeo and Juliet” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
“Henry V” was a huge step up. Richmond says he was looking for an actor younger than is usually cast as Henry. “We wanted to see the young person’s journey,” he says. At the same time, he adds, “Young people usually don’t have the chops.”
And then Appelman walked through the door. “He’s a boy who didn’t want to be king in the first place, unlike the kings who stole the crown,” the actor says of the character he plays. “He didn’t grow up preparing for that. So I think somewhere underneath it, all there is a melancholy about that, about the life he’s lost.”
It has to be unnerving for a director, casting someone he or she has never met in a part so large, the entire venture hinges on a confirmation of what happened in an audition. “For 27, Zach is a wise soul,” Richmond says. “He always says he has an old head on young shoulders.”
They tackled the part together. “We worked on the telephone and a little bit by e-mail for a few months after that.” When they continued in rehearsals in Washington, Richmond adds, “it all came together in performance.”
That clicking has something to do with an actor being able to cement an instantaneous bond with the paying customers. And with the special demands of Shakespeare’s language, the click is even harder to activate. Page says he learned early in a career brimming with Shakespeare that “you had to command the back of the audience with your voice.”
“When I was first learning at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, I remember coming out on stage in costume, and I was shocked: It was summertime, the audience was wearing pastels and shorts, it was so incongruous. What was evident to me immediately was it would be completely false to pretend they weren’t there. You had to make them part of your world, even when a character is in a private situation.”
“It’s an awareness of the audience, it’s an eagerness to reach to the back,” Page says. “I feel a lot of responsibility to the people at the back of the house. You think they wanted those tickets? You have to send your energy to them, that way.”
A Shakespeare star, in other words, has to have size. And Appelman is hoping he continues to be a good fit. “I don’t want to do only Shakespeare,” he says, “but I would love to continue doing Shakespeare for the rest of my career. I want to keep growing with the roles.”
directed by Robert Richmond. Through Sunday at Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. Visit www.folger.edu/theatre or call 202-544-7077.
directed by David Muse. March 28 to June 2 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Visit www.shakespearetheatre.org or call 202-547-1122.