The Invention of Love

Ambitious script, gifted cast take us inside a brilliant mind in Austin Shakespeare's The Invention of Love

A meeting of one mind: Older Housman (Philip Goodwin) greets his younger self (André Martin).
A meeting of one mind: Older Housman (Philip Goodwin) greets his younger self (André Martin). (photo courtesy of Bret Brookshire)

It isn't often that one is afforded the opportunity to plumb the depths of a genius' mind. Upping the ante, Austin Shakespeare's production of The Invention of Love gives a rare glimpse into the minds of two: that of the inimitable Tom Stoppard, who penned the masterpiece, as well as Victorian-era scholar and poet A.E. Housman, best known for his collection of poems, A Shropshire Lad. The Invention of Love wends its way through the recesses of Housman's mind to tell his life story, characterized here by his academic successes at Oxford and the personal repression he suffered due to his unrequited love for a schoolmate, Moses Jackson. Just as our own memories sometimes flood in at once – jumbled, often incorrect fragments – Stoppard's imaginative retelling of one man's life does not unfold in a neat, straight line. Instead, it plays on the fallibility of human memory to piece together a blurred image that perhaps means the most when taken as a whole.

A visual representation of time's free-flowing nature, Leslie Ann Turner's dreamlike scenic design consists of gorgeous abstract waves painted onstage, with loosely draped fabrics softly framing the scene. Jason Amato's mesmerizing lighting once again completes the visuals, leaving the audience dangling somewhere between reality and illusion, or, in Housman's case, life and death. These enticing aesthetics help place us right alongside Housman as he boards the ferry of the mythological Charon, weaving through episodes of his past before crossing into the afterlife. A combination of Stoppard's writing of these interactions and Chase Brewer's refreshing comic timing as Charon help to make the scene lighthearted and even funny at times, a healthy lead-in for the heavy ideas the play tackles later.

Typical of Stoppard, Invention deals in more than just complex concepts; the text is dripping with references to classical literature that can be daunting, to say the least. Don't let that be a deterrent. Director Ann Ciccolella has clearly ensured that this fine cast has done their homework, particularly in the case of Philip Goodwin, who plays the elder Housman. A D.C. transplant brought in for the role, Goodwin adeptly handles the enormous task of portraying a man reflecting on opportunities – and love – lost, all in between Latin musings and highbrow banter. His classical background shines brightly here, particularly when he recites poetry and in his exchanges with Oscar Wilde (a brilliant Brian Coughlin), whose characterization represents the openness that Housman was never able to embrace.

As Jackson, the object of Housman's affection, Erik Mathew is affable and charming, thus worsening the blow when he does not reciprocate his friend's sentiments. The young Housman, André Martin, delivers an even and intriguing performance, especially in those bizarre but illuminating moments when the two Housmans interact. Completing the trio is Nick Stevenson as schoolmate Pollard, who provides much of the comedy in the flashback scenes. Austin Shakespeare regulars such as David Boss, Michael Miller, and Keith Paxton also contribute polished performances.

Though the technical elements of the production are as high-quality as the acting, certain moments are a bit heavy-handed. For instance, the fog that surrounds the older Housman throughout the majority of the play at times obscures the action. Similarly, I could do with fewer sound effects – not the first time I've felt this in an Austin Shakespeare show – and rather trust the actors and the text to relate certain events. Still, the production utilizes an ambitious script and a gifted cast to tell an emotionally wrenching tale of a genius who led a life "marked by long silences."

The Invention of Love

Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside
Through March 8
Running time: 3 hr.

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Austin Shakespeare, Tom Stoppard, A.E. Housman, Ann Ciccolella, Jason Amato, Leslie Ann Turner, Philip Goodwin, Brian Coughlin, Erik Mathew, André Martin, Chase Brewer, David Boss, Michael Miller, Keith Paxton

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