Four hundred years, and though a few have come close, perhaps no one has ever completely unknotted the endlessly complex character of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. All at once, he’s grieving for his lost father, he’s undergoing an existential crisis, he has complex political and ethical concerns to juggle, he’s confused in love and he’s a young man coming dangerously unhinged. Taking on the role is a task no actor would ever approach lightly.
When Greg Mihalik, an actor and drama educator based in Newport, got the part in Ten Bucks Theatre’s planned production of the play, he knew he was about to embark on a journey that would change him — as an actor and as a person.
Director Julie Lisnet chose “Hamlet” this year as Ten Bucks’ outdoor Shakespeare production, which opens at Indian Trail Park in Brewer on Thursday, July 21, because she knew she had a pool of actors who could rise to the challenge.
“You just don’t do this play without knowing you’ve got a Hamlet,” said Lisnet. “I knew among our actors that we did. It ended up that it was going to be Greg, and I know that he’s the kind of actor that will really commit himself to learning the lines and working extremely, extremely hard. It’s a huge task.”
Mihalik, 33, seen most recently in Ten Bucks’ productions of “Epic Proportions” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” found himself cast as Hamlet in April and has spent the ensuing months immersing himself in the text and the character. That process has been intensified by the fact that back in December, Mihalik’s mother passed away. As he worked his way through his grief, he found his own life mirrored, in a way, by Hamlet’s struggle in the play with his father’s death.
“It’s allowed me to grieve in a very open and raw way,” said Mihalik. “The thing about Hamlet is that you cannot hide behind the character. It absolutely forces you to confront all those emotions in a totally real way. All that emotion is right beneath the surface for me still, so I have to bring it out and kind of put it out there. There’s definitely an element of catharsis for me.”
Lisnet knew what Mihalik was going through and asked him to consider it before he took on the role.
“I don’t think he ever hesitated in saying yes to the role,” said Lisnet. “But I wanted to be sure that he was going to feel safe in doing Hamlet, because it is such a big thing to undertake. And Greg takes what he does seriously.”
Mihalik dutifully memorized his thousands of lines, and by mid-June was off-book. He has avoided watching any of the films of “Hamlet,” though he admits he particularly appreciates Mel Gibson’s performance of the character in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 adaptation.
“Say what you will about Mel Gibson, but his performance is the least actor-y and most earnest out of all of them I’ve seen,” said Mihalik. “He just jumps right in and gives it his all.”
Though his character naturally comprises the overall heft of the play, other Ten Bucks regulars take on their roles with gusto, including Aimee Gerow as Ophelia, Petr Smejkal as Polonius, Nathan Roach as Laertes, Lisa Reilich as Gertrude and Ron Lisnet as Claudius, Hamlet’s murderous uncle. Ben Laymen makes a particularly enjoyable cameo as the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father. Costumes are by Rebecca Wright, sets are by Andy Frodahl, and as with all of Ten Bucks’ summer Shakespeare productions, “Hamlet” will be performed for two weekends at Indian Trail Park in Brewer and one weekend at Fort Knox State Park. Actors enter and exist among rustling oak trees at Indian Trail Park, and in and out of darkened corridors at Fort Knox. Both are appropriate settings for Shakespeare, with Indian Trail Park’s natural amphitheater and Fort Knox’s imposing granite wall faces heightening the dramatic tension.
In processing the complex motivations of his character and committing to memory tens of thousands of some of the most famous words in the English language, Mihalik has found himself changing — not just in dealing with the fallout from his loss late last year, but as an actor and as a person.
“Just living with these words and having them in my mind all the time has really enriched my life,” he said. “I just feel better having learned them and lived them.”
“Hamlet” will be performed at 6 p.m. July 21-23 and July 28-30, and at 4 p.m. July 24 and 31, at Indian Trail Park in Brewer, and at 6 p.m. Aug. 4-7 at Fort Knox State Park in Prospect. Admission is $10. Bring bug spray, blankets and a picnic. For information, call 884-1030.