Not So Mortal Combat

St. Paul’s newest armory looks more dangerous than it is.

Adam Scarpello

Adam Scarpello got sick of scrounging up weapons every time he needed one, so he started laying in his own supply. Now he has 100-odd broadswords, rapiers, knives, and daggers; a great number of guns and shields; and suits of armor in both plate and chain mail. The actor and fight coach showed them to me one sunny afternoon, in the shade of a shaggy river birch tree outside his armory. The steel of the rapiers glinted dangerously as squirrels scrabbled in the fat leaves overhead.

Rapiers, the long thin swords seen in movies such as The Princess Bride, are among the most popular stage weapons. Broadswords are larger and thicker, less about piercing and more about hacking, and they’re in demand for fights taking place in the Middle Ages, such as in Henry V. Scarpello’s swords have blunted points and edges, making them roughly as dangerous as golf clubs. “But if I was walking down the street with a golf club in one hand and a rapier in the other,” he says, “no one would even see the golf club.”

Scarpello, who has the bright ice-blue eyes and erect athletic carriage of Alexander Skarsgard, wrestled folding chairs from a supply of 20-pound training shields so I could sit for a demo. Scarpello founded Staged Steel Armory out of his house in St. Paul two years ago; he rents his weapons to the shows that draw on his services. He showed me how a rapier is best wielded, flourished, and brandished to achieve maximum visibility in the cheap seats. It was hard to listen as he talked. There’s something about a rapier moving just in front of you—flickering and then vanishing like lightning—that demands your absolute attention. “While a rapier’s greatest asset is its ability to pierce, the hilt can be used to smash an opponent in the face,” Scarpello said as he brought his fist and elbow up to deliver what looked like a very effective way to smash someone in the face.

This is the sort of move you might see used by Tybalt, the guy who makes all the trouble for Romeo and then gets offed by him. A director with no sympathy for Tybalt might have him fighting sneaky and dirty, with his eventual end being the thing the audience most desires. A director more sympathetic to Tybalt might show him fighting reluctantly, pulling punches. Scarpello recently worked on a Romeo and Juliet in which Romeo was portrayed as a young lesbian who slid her rapier into Tybalt in a subtle and mild gesture, to the surprise of all involved. It was, I’m told, a most delicate murder. And that’s why St. Paul has this private armory: for better storytelling through combat.

“I liken it to a musical,” Scarpello says. “You break the talking to sing, but with what I do, you’re breaking the talking to fight. I like to build a fight such that it tells where the character is in their story arc, all that’s happened to them in their lives to this point, and where they are in the story right now. Someone who’s been drawing a sword for 30 years draws it differently than someone who never has; a trained Navy Seal holds a gun differently than a gangster in 1920s Chicago. A fight should tell a story. If not, what’s the point?”

Scarpello practiced martial arts as a child in Omaha, Nebraska, acted in high school, and trained with a stage-fighting choreographer as a teen. Today he is one of about a dozen stage-combat choreographers in the Twin Cities. He’s part of the New Bridge Theatre Company in Hastings and has collaborated with Theatre Coup d’Etat. He also teaches fighting in acting classes and is hired as fight director or fight captain for various productions.

At a local community college, Scarpello was part of a Romeo and Juliet that had Tybalt and Romeo ranging over a two-story set in a fight that included weapons lost, weapons regained, and a final swan dive in which dead Tybalt was caught by his friends. To do a large-scale fight scene, Scarpello says, first you teach safety, then weapon use, and then you choreograph the fights. Everyone has to keep to their right tempo, their blocking. They have to choreograph their reaction to being wounded. Then there’s the issue of moving the wounded over the living and making sure those seconds or minutes of fight carry storytelling.

“I want to see good fights, and I want to be part of good fights,” Scarpello says. With all his armor, he stands a good chance of being part of a lot of very good fights—and we all might see the quality of Twin Cities drama, already so high, inch incrementally higher, as future Romeos and Tybalts draw on years, instead of weeks, of prior rapier experience.