The Mothers of Invention The English poet A.E. Housman is the subject of Tom Stoppard's brilliantly written play, The Invention of Love, which was produced this past spring at The Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia. Collaborating with director Blanka Zizka, New York-based set designer Michael McGarty (making his Wilma debut) designed sets that are as visually arresting as the words are aurally interesting. Russell Champa's lighting and Janus Stefanowicz's costumes added to the abstract nature of the production.
The major set piece is an arched bridge with platforms and walls that change as the action moves in and out of the English university town of Oxford. "The bridge is like an old Oxford bridge, which anchors us in an older world," says McGarty. "The rest I just made up."
The first scene opens with the set entirely covered in black fabric, where we meet Housman at the end of his life. A boatman on the river Styx comes to claim him, in a boat that flies in over the heads of the audience. "It's on a flying rig that could travel from the back of the theatre to the front," notes McGarty. The actor gets on the boat from a catwalk in the back of the house and is pulled across and lowered to the stage at the same time via a motor backstage. The boat moves on a 90' track suspended below the ceiling of the theatre. An opening allows the boat to move backstage, and when it does, it pulls some of the black fabric covering the stage along with it. The rest is pulled by stagehands, off of the arches of the bridge and a large statue of a head that sits stage left. One piece of the fabric is flown out on a batten.
As the fabric disappears, it reveals a fantasy version of Oxford, with the bright clear light of a student's innocent days at university, complete with playing fields, large white furniture, and a croquet game that looks as if it popped out of Alice in Wonderland. "There are a lot of images from various Surrealist painters," McGarty says.
The most intriguing set element is a small wooden boat that glides across the top of the bridge, as if gliding along a river. "This is a combination of mechanics and human effort," explains McGarty, who had the sets built at Noble Theatrical in Brooklyn, NY. "I used a New York shop so I could go in often and look at things. We spent a lot of time talking about the mechanics of the set, and how to make it look simple on the front yet do a lot of tricks."
The gliding boat is actually a custom-designed (and strangely shaped) stage wagon pulled across the top of the bridge by stagehands. At other moments, the panels atop the bridge open in different combinations to reveal students, professors, a foot race, and a music hall number. Clouds and abstract images are projected onto the back wall to add to the surreal feel.
"Stoppard uses language that is dense and complicated, albeit very beautiful. In fact, it is some of the most beautiful language I have come across in all the plays I've done," says McGarty. "So visually it needed to be crisp and spectacular to help us listen to what was going on. I wanted to complement Stoppard's written beauty with some visual beauty. Blanka and I worked on this for over six months. What you see is the distilled version of the set."
At the end of the play, Housman meets Oscar Wilde. "They are the yin and yang of the play," says McGarty, who created a stylized living room for Wilde at the end of his life. "They were similar in terms of sexual orientation and education, yet they took different paths: one lived a scholarly, lonely life and the other was the opposite of that. The play is a meditation on those two lives in some way."
Both Housman and Wilde would have approved of some of the humorous touches in the design of this production, such as white wings on the tail coats of the Oxford professors, and they certainly would have applauded the handsome young men discovering poetry, love, and betrayal.
McGarty is the resident set designer at Trinity Rep in Providence, RI, and he spent much of the summer at the Breadloaf School of English in Middlebury, VT, where he teaches a design course. He also designed both A Woman in Black and You Can't Take It With You for the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, NY this summer.