Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - October 1, 2010

Shakespeare, swords and the stage

Paly graduate brings his acting and stage combat to the Chicago theater

by Georgia Wells

Zach Appelman began acting in his freshman year of high school, in Mike McGovern's world-history class at Palo Alto High School. McGovern organized shows to help his students grasp the material in a way that transcended textbooks.

But Appelman never thought of it as theater. He said, "It was the dramatic storytelling that I really fell in love with."

Today, Appelman is still on stage, telling one of the theater's classic stories. After graduating in May from the Yale School of Drama's graduate acting program, he's now playing Tybalt in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's production of "Romeo and Juliet."

Two months before graduation, the young actor sent a video audition to the Chicago theater company. He landed the part of Romeo's rival, and the chance to work with acclaimed Australian director Gale Edwards.

In a recent phone interview, Appelman described his director as incredibly passionate about the text and Shakespeare's language.

"There's a misconception that focusing on language makes plays archaic or intellectual," he said. "But investigating the poetry is what makes it come alive. The study of words in a visceral way — not many directors do that as well as Edwards."

Edwards' production is also an intensely physical one, stressing the violence of the warring Montague and Capulet families. Tybalt, the embodiment of hatred and violence, is as passionate about this feud as Romeo and Juliet are about their love. He's a tragic figure because he's been trained by society and family to be a killing machine, Appelman said.

Lost in this world of hatred, Tybalt battles in three swordfights. Part of what landed Appelman this role was his experience with stage combat, he said. He earned a karate black belt in high school, and studied stage combat while at Yale.

With almost as much time on stage fighting as speaking, Appelman has worked extensively with fight choreographer Rick Sordelet, whose resume includes 50 Broadway shows.

The current show opens with a giant brawl between the Capulets and the Montagues. "It's choreographed like a wild and intense dance," Appelman said. Actors fight, then turn and fight another person — all while staying synchronized, he said. And in a ferocious extension of the tensions among Tybalt, Mercutio and Romeo, Appelman fights both in a duel.

"In bad (poorly executed) fight scenes, swords come out and the play stops. Then the fighting ends, and the play can continue," Appelman said. "Rick's scenes, however, are seamless — they advance the story."

When he's not engaged in stage combat in Chicago, Appelman is based in New York City, where he spent the summer focusing on voice-over jobs for video games and a Nickelodeon cartoon show. When he returns to the city in November, he'll jump back into the busy life of auditioning for the theater.

His other stage roles have included Ferdinand in "The Tempest," Orlando in "As You Like It," both Oberon and Flute in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and Biff in "Death of a Salesman."

Info: Chicago Shakespeare Theater presents "Romeo and Juliet" through Nov. 21. For more information, go to http://www.chicagoshakes.com .

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