Brian MacDevitt Lights a Victorian World of Golden Spires and Stygian Gloom

It's not every day that an LD is expected to provide lighting for the afterlife, but that was the task facing Brian MacDevitt when he designed The Invention of Love, Tom Stoppard's historical-literary fantasy, which opened on Broadway in March and won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Foreign Play. The play allows us to see one man's life refracted through his dying memories. In Stoppard's telling, a famous yet reclusive Victorian poet and scholar comes face to face with his younger self and confronts the huge gulf between his public persona and his private self.

In other words, The Invention of Love is an explosion of intellectual fireworks. It's another brain-busting display of erudition from British playwright Stoppard, best-known here for The Real Thing. In Invention, A.E. Housman, best-known for two volumes of melancholy verse, enters the Underworld, presided over by the mythological figure Charon. The play reviews his life, including his early days at Oxford, his unspoken love for a fellow student, and his growing eminence as a scholar of Classical culture. Housman's life is contrasted with that of Oscar Wilde, an Oxford acquaintance, whose comet-like popularity was destroyed in a homosexual scandal that rocked Victorian England. For all its wordplay and erudition, the core of the play is Housman's love for Moses John Jackson, a relationship that, in Stoppard's telling, continued to define his life long after it ended.

Speaking of Invention, MacDevitt says, “We wanted the play to look like a dream. It's completely romantic.” Bob Crowley's set, which uses multiple layers of scrim and a mirrored deck to create a world defined by fantasy and memory — in fact, the entire play is arguably a dream experienced by the elderly Housman — and MacDevitt's lighting works with these elements to give each scene its own distinct, yet highly romantic, feeling.

The production's design alternates, says MacDevitt, between “golden spires and Stygian gloom,” the latter for the scenes featuring Housman in the Underworld and the former for the scenes depicting Housman's days at Oxford, which he recalls as the happiest time of his life. The play begins with Housman on the River Styx, waiting for his passage to the Underworld — the look is created by scrims, a dense web of white sidelight, and haze from an MDG Atmosphere haze machine. Oxford is depicted by Crowley as a kind of Emerald City, with towering spires seen from afar, while MacDevitt bathes the stage in warm green and gold tones. Certain of these scenes feature an earth-colored drop, about which the LD says, “It's gold and brown, with colors deeply blended into it. I had license to go crazy with colors on it.”

The colors and templates used by the designer for these scenes come from units on the balcony rail position. Many of MacDevitt's color choices were inspired by Victorian painters, including James McNeill Whistler. His painting Nocturne, a bridge scene with fireworks, was especially relevant as the play features a similar tableau, when the young Housman and his sister watch a fireworks display on a hill.

In Invention, MacDevitt says, “I'm using a kind of ballet plot, with a boom upstage and downstage of each wing and at least 20 to 30 lamps in each wing. There's almost nothing overhead, because of the mirrored deck, and backlighting was out of the question. The sides are mirrored, too. We went crazy trying to block the lights with half hats. The backs of the legs weren't mirrored, but were covered with a high-gloss black material, so we had to keep light off them, too. For me, the big thing is having all those layers of scrims and the mirrored deck. With them, every image is doubled. It creates a kind of dream effect.”

To facilitate the play's dream structure, the designer uses City Theatrical AutoYokes as roving specials, which allows the design to fade easily from one scene to the next. “The cueing of the show is very slurred,” he says. “There aren't many bump cues in the show, and there are a lot of multi-part cues.” For instance, near the end of the first act, the older Housman meets his younger self; there's one cue that lasts approximately 30 minutes, in which “we go from mid-afternoon to deep night. Of course, most of the second act is played at night. The play moves from youthful sunlight to darkness.” (The production does use a couple of followspots, which are Source Four units with City Theatrical followspot handles.)

There are exceptions to this master plan: A scene depicting a theatrical performance is lit with Lee 124 Dark Green sidelight, to create an artificial stage look; a scene depicting the first electrification of a Victorian theatre blazes with light. But throughout most of its running time, The Invention of Love is MacDevitt's Dream Play. It begins and ends with a pinspot on actor Richard Easton, who plays the older Housman. In between, the designer creates a dream world of shadow and light, a perfect passageway for Housman's journey of understanding.

On The Invention of Love (which continues its run at the Lyceum Theatre), Shelly Sabel was associate lighting designer, with Matthew Piercy as MacDevitt's assistant, Graeme McDonnell as production electrician, and Nick Irons, Michael Guggino, and Eric Guldty serving as followspot operators. Lighting equipment was supplied by Fourth Phase. Not one to stand still, MacDevitt also recently designed the Off Broadway musical Urinetown!, which transfers to a Broadway theatre this month.

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Selected Lighting Equipment

347 ETC Source Fours
4 ETC VNSP Source Four PARs
4 ETC MFL Source Four PARs
13 ETC WFL Source Four PARs
3 PAR-16 snub SPs
8 PAR-16 snub FLs
2 PAR-64 MFLs
8 Mini-10s
15 8' MR-16 SPs
4 8' MR-16 FLs
5 3-circuit T-3s
8 3'9" DimFlos
1 Ghost Light
13 A-lamps
13 City Theatrical AutoYokes
1 MDG Atmosphere hazers
Wybron scrollers
City Theatrical EFXPlus2 effects machines

Read about another of MacDevitt's recent Broadway productions, Judgment at Nuremberg, on the web at