The most annoying and in some ways enthralling character in Voyage, the first part of Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia trilogy, is revolutionary Michael Bakunin.
In fact, there are some parts of him that are so unlikeable that it was difficult at first to play him, actor Guy Roberts told Art Attack.
If it hadn't been that there were two more parts to go -- the upcoming Shipwreck and Salvage -- in which other sides of Bakunin are revealed, Roberts said he wasn't at all sure that he would have undertaken the massive endeavor now ongoing at Main Street Theater, helmed by director Rebecca Udden.
But by taking on the role, Roberts said, he had the rare experience of being able to develop a character over a long arc.
"You never get to create a character with that long a trajectory," Roberts said. Bakunin was a man who was able to be a revolutionary precisely because of his father's wealth, Roberts said. At the same time, because his father periodically cut him off, Bakunin borrowed money from everyone he knew. His sisters adored him, but Bakunin didn't know how to deal with women outside his family unit.
Roberts came to the Tom Stoppard play through a circuitous route. He grew up in Houston, went to Boston University, then New York City for five years, then was director of the Austin Shakespeare Festival. At age 35 he went to Prague for a play, fell in love with the city, quit his job in Austin and decided to start an English-language Shakespeare Festival there, now in its fourth year.
He was coming back to the Houston area periodically to check on a relative in ill health and eventually met Udden. They agreed to collaborate on a Shakespeare production here -- Richard III -- which will open April 26 at Main Street Theater. As long as he was already here, Roberts said Udden enlisted him for The Coast of Utopia with its huge cast. "I have long hair so Becky looked at me and said 'revolutionary,'" he said.
Although Roberts had never done Stoppard before, it was appropriate given that the playwright was Czech, he said. "His writing is so smart. I really didn't know a great deal about these Russian thinkers and philosophers -- how it [communist regime] actually came into being with the best of intentions in reaction to conditions in their country." "But you certainly don't have to know anything about history to understand these plays," he said. "The characters have real problems: love, loyalty, the meaning of life, how to make a difference."
"In the simplest way a person's life is actually better after you've seen these plays. There's something kind of heroic about Main Street Theater doing these plays," Roberts said. "I'm very sorry that it's going to end."
Main Street Theater's production of Tom Stoppard's trilogy The Coast of Utopia continues with Part 2: Shipwreck, which opens February 10 and runs through March 8 at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard. Part 3: Salvage runs February 24 through March 11. For ticket information call 713-524-6706 or go to www.mainstreettheater.com.
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