Josh Carpenter (as Hamlet) and John Preston (as the gravedigger) are seen in the famous “gravedigger” scene in “Hamlet.” (Photo by Shawn May)

Josh Carpenter (as Hamlet) and John Preston (as the gravedigger) are seen in the famous “gravedigger” scene in “Hamlet.” (Photo by Shawn May)

by Hugh Hunter

Quintessence, a theater in the round located inside the shell of the old Sedgwick Theater, is dedicated to the performance of the classics. They opened their fall season last week with Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” a play notoriously hard to stage.

Director Alexander Burns shortens the drama by nearly an hour. He cuts scenes where King Claudius plots to kill Hamlet. He cuts scenes that give comic relief and broaden the play’s scope, such as the conversation between the two grave diggers (Act 5, scene 1).

These changes are problematic. The full play does meander for well over three hours, which limits its direct emotional impact. But “Hamlet” is what it is, and compressing the play does not enhance its power. It just changes the play.

With the deletion of much conspiracy talk, minor characters sometimes pop up out of nowhere. Since you do not see Claudius’ plotting, you do not feel the full expanse of his villainy. Above all, you are now less sympathetic to Hamlet; you see him more as a distraught personality, less as a product of changing circumstances.

My hat goes off to any actor who has the nerve to take on Hamlet. The character is so huge that, sooner or later, in every Hamlet portrayal you eventually hear a little voice inside your head that whispers, “But you got that all wrong!”

At Quintessence I heard that little voice more than I wanted to. Josh Carpenter has the looks for the role. He also has a fine voice, good elocution and never stumbles over lines. But his portrayal only underscores the Quintessence vision of Hamlet as mostly an overwrought man.

Carpenter moves incessantly. He always searches for fields of emotional conflict in everything Hamlet says, even in his most innocent remarks. (To be fair, there are not many of those.)

But Hamlet has other sides. He is fun-loving and witty, reflective, ironical, bemused. Even with “To be or not to be,” this Hamlet is so choked with emotion he can barely stand still long enough to say the lines.

The supporting cast in this modern dress production is strong.  E. Ashley Izard (Gertrude), John G. Preston (Polonius), Rachel Brodeur (Ophelia) and Ralph Edmonds (Claudius and the Ghost) were among the notable performances.

But as in all productions, the Hamlet figure dwarfs everyone.

In “Hamlet” you see the dramatic emergence of modern man. Though still profoundly Christian, Hamlet is a doubter. Above all, he celebrates his inner life. (“…they are actions that a man might play, but I have that within which passeth show,” Act 1, scene 2.)

We see little of that dramatic emergence in this production. This Hamlet is mostly just a man out of control. And when Horatio eulogizes him saying “Now cracks a noble heart,” you wonder whom he is talking about.

Quintessence is located at 7137 Germantown Ave. “Hamlet” will run through Nov 23.  Reservations at 215-987-4450.