The last time I saw Guy Roberts, he was wielding a sword. These days, as Michael Bakunin, he's wielding big, idealistic thoughts from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Immanuel Kant, while plotting the seeds of the Russian revolution with Alexander Herzen and Vissarion Belinsky, in Tom Stoppard's trilogy The Coast of Utopia, Part 1: Voyage at Main Street Theater (MST) through Sunday.
Bakunin is featured in all three plays, so as soon as Part 1 concludes this weekend, he will be deep into rehearsals for The Coast of Utopia Part 2: Shipwreck, Feb. 10-March 8 at Main Street Theater, and The Coast of Utopia Part 3: Salvage, Feb. 24-March 11.
"Stoppard is like Shakespeare, in that he cares for his actors in his plays," Roberts says. "There's time built in between scenes for the actors in all of these plays."
It's a long haul for this classically trained actor, who is most known for his collaboration with Classical Theatre Company and his own Prague Shakespeare Festival. "I haven't done anything but Shakespeare in six years," says Roberts, looking slightly overwhelmed by all that is in front of him. "It's kind of weird not speaking in verse."
This is also his first Stoppard play. "Stoppard is like Shakespeare, in that he cares for his actors in his plays," Roberts says. "There's time built in between scenes for the actors in all of these plays."
The production, only the second in the nation, was recently highlighted in American Theater magazine. It's a big deal for MST, Roberts and the audience.
After witnessing Roberts' riveting performance, I was dying to talk to him. The part of Bakunin, originated by Ethan Hawke in the Lincoln Center production, forms the engine that drives the action, while annoying just about every character in the play, and frequently asking them for money.
Bakunin is known as "the father of anarchy," yet in the first play, we mostly see him as a spoiled only-son of a wealthy landowner, who flits from one philosopher to another, or "blowhard," as his father calls them.
"Michael is the center, he draws the other characters out," Roberts says. "He also plays the fool. He's the ridiculous one who can charm anyone."
Despite the numerous historical references in Stoppard's trilogy, Roberts does not think it's necessary to read every book on The New York Times Map to Utopia list at all.
Like any Stoppard play, this one is filled with zinger lines, and Bakunin has his share of them.
"Everything you need to know is actually in the play," he says. "Mostly, I read the play over and over. You can learn a lot from what the other characters say about Bakunin. I did read Bakunin's biography. There's this great story about how he stopped by a group of peasants protesting at a castle door. As he rode away, the castle was on fire. Bakunin couldn't resist a revolution.
"Where ever there was one, he was there."
Roberts is drawn to Stoppard's headiness, which is also amazingly free of heavy handedness. Stoppard can stick a physics lecture inside a play and we still love it. Just consider what Arcadia did for math.
"You feel smarter acting in his plays, and smarter for watching them," he says. "Really, I'm sure that chemicals are firing in your brain."
Like any Stoppard play, this one is filled with zinger lines, and Bakunin has his share of them. Several times, I had the urge to write things down or hope that the character repeated what he had just said.
"There's a temptation to let them linger in the air, but you can't or you will lose the rhythm," Roberts explains. "It's a real pleasure to say them, though. It's exciting to know that one of those is coming up, too. Bakunin gets an epic speech in the third play where everything comes together."
Listen to Stoppard on the Russian Revolution:
"But when it comes it will come against the odds, against calculation and common sense, out of nowhere like an epidemic, because revolution is spirit set free, the body is only keeping up; and society will find its own form, which will be the shadow thrown by the inner nature of the people," the playwright said.
"He could very well be talking about the Arab Spring," insists Roberts.
Bakunin grows up through the course of the three plays. It's a tremendous arc for an actor to carry off. But, with a resume like Roberts', it's another day in the theater.
"It's like going to the gym, you build up to it," he says.
After the Stoppard trilogy lets up, there is no rest for this weary actor. He will be directing Richard III and playing the lead role of Richard at MST, then taking the play to Prague in Main Street Theater's first international adventure.
He gets his sword back, too.