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.”
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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.