With his comfortable gray sneakers, black-framed glasses and shaggy hair, you might not be surprised to see the young Alex Burns reading a battered copy of “Hamlet” in a quiet coffee shop corner.In fact, he’s the artistic director of Mt. Airy’s Quintessence Theatre Group, mastermind of Philadelphia’s latest production of “Hamlet” and offers up the chance for ticket-buyers to experience the show as the Globe Theatre’s groundlings — common folk who paid a penny to stand throughout a performance — would have.
This “Hamlet” at Germantown Avenue’s Sedgwick Theater is bound to raise a few eyebrows.
“Quintessence gets pushback for everything,” Burns said when NewsWorks stopped by to catch the final preview of his “Hamlet” before the Oct. 12 opening date. In this case, instead of presenting the full three and a half hour performance audiences might expect, Burns and his ensemble cast (including Quintessence Shakespeare veteran Josh Carpenter as the Prince of Denmark) have whittled the script down to a comparatively sleek 150 minutes.
Nowadays, that’s shorter than a lot of movies to hit the big screen. Burns figures that with five exposition-packed acts, the original “Hamlet” wasn’t meant to be consumed in one long gulp. Rather, original viewers might have been able to wander in and out of the performance, and return without missing a beat.
On Hamlet’s boat
“In ‘Hamlet,’ every piece of the action that happens in the play is set up for you. Characters tell you exactly what’s going to happen, and you get to experience it afterward,” he explained.
When friends pointed this out to him after his first experience directing “Hamlet” in Washington, D.C., Burns “was dismissive of this criticism of the play.” But this perspective grew on him, until he wondered what the play would look like if it were stripped down to show only the story’s action-packed moments.
“So I spent an afternoon with the play and cut all the exposition, and left all the key moments in the play,” so that the show jumps “from big moment to big moment.”
Burns believes the result is more in tune with impatient 21st century audiences: “It doesn’t give you much time to breathe. It’s very full-throttle; it doesn’t pull back at all.”
Many scenes are left out entirely, with a speech or line saved and inserted somewhere else. Burns noted that in the original version of the play, Horatio is the viewer’s guide. But in this version, a loss of “back-room” dealing means that the audience meets the action through Hamlet’s eyes every time.
“You get to experience the story as Hamlet does. You’re really on his boat,” Burns said.
The groundling experience
And for just $10, the audience can literally get on Hamlet’s level, shoulder-to-shoulder with Claudius (Ralph Edmonds), Gertrude (Ashley Izard), Ophelia (Rachel Brodeur) and the rest.
With large platforms that roll in and out of the action thanks to a perfectly coordinated team of stagehands, some of the action takes place on a raised stage, at the groundlings’ eye-level, or right on the floor, so that standing-room ticket buyers become mourners at Ophelia’s funeral or spectators at Laertes and Hamlet’s duel. Audience members who prefer to sit at the usual distance can purchase $25 seats ($15 for those under $21) that look down on the action from either side.
Burns said that Wednesday night’s preview yielded a big crowd of groundlings, but there were just a few on Thursday and Friday. It remains to be seen how many ticket-buyers will choose this experience.
Mt. Airy resident Melissia Baker decided to buy a groundling ticket for the same reason Shakespeare’s groundlings had — the lower price. Friday night’s preview was her first time at Quintessence.
She had jumped at the affordable chance to see what she said was her favorite Shakespeare play from her high school years.
“Is this the one with the soliloquy? ‘To be or not to be’?” she asked. She learned the famous bit of verse as a teenager and has loved it ever since.
Audience members who want to savor every word of the play may be disappointed, but the Quintessence production leaves most of the greatest hits alone — in fact, a lot of the time, the performance rushes from one famous line to the next.
Burns compared his cuts to the play to a CD featuring the highlights of an opera, letting you enjoy all the best scenes without missing out on any important plot elements. As for the production itself, Burns likened that to a sporting event rather than a play.
Now, the play seems to happen in real time, a “spectator event, where the audience is really thrown around in terms of the action.”
Burns dislikes the current convention of confining the plays to a proscenium stage in a darkened theater. “We’re doing the plays a huge disservice by putting them in these little boxes, [like] films of naturalism when they’re really these epic pieces of poetry.”
At intermission, Baker said she enjoyed being so close to the action.
Burns knows there are bound to be traditionalists dismayed by the many pages of dialogue that are missing here, but he maintained that true Shakespeare lovers will come away happy.
“We really do love the plays, and know them,” he said of the Quintessence approach. “So all the little changes we’re making are done with great care and respect for the piece.”
Hamlet runs through Nov. 23, with special post-show discussions with director Alex Burns on Oct. 24 and Nov. 10. It will run in rotating repertory with Oliver Goldsmith’s classic 18th century comedy, “She Stoops to Conquer.” For tickets and more information, visit the Quintessence website or call (215) 987-4450.