Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
In Harrison David Rivers' new play, To Let Go and Fall, Arthur and Todd are reunited after a separation of twenty-six years. We see them as they are today, both fifty-one years old, having lived very different lives and in flashback scenes as sixteen-year-old student dancers who meet and fall in love during a summer dance intensive program with American Ballet Theatre in New York City, then again, six years later, as twenty-five-year-old company members whose careers have taken off, though to different heights, and whose relationship has reached full bloom.
Rivers is among the most prolific young playwrights working today, with twelve produced full-length plays in less than a decade in theaters from New York to San Francisco. It is our good fortune that he is based in St. Paul, and that Theater Latté Da, where Rivers' musical Five Points had its world premiere last year, tapped him for this new work, playing at their home-base Ritz Theatre. His next premiering works will be The Bandaged Place at the New York Stage and Film Festival at Vassar College later this month, followed later this year by Just One, staged by Transport Group in New York City.
All the scenes in To Let Go and Fall are set at the same spot: the Paul Milstein Pool and Terrace, on the grounds of New York City's Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. We time travel between 1982, 1991 and 2017, with social and historical contexts greatly changing the world in which Arthur and Todd experience their love. Most profound for their lives, in 2017 the love between two men no longer needs to be lived in the shadows, but can be openly consecrated by marriage, while the scourge of AIDS over two decades decimated the ranks of gay men's communities, hitting the world of dance extremely hard, and continues to lurk like a stain that cannot be fully removed.
All through this, the place where Arthur and Todd exchange love and regrets, promises and accusations, remains a crossroads of the arts, where music, opera, dance and theater come explosively alive and inspire one another. Similarly, Rivers brings together a bouquet of art forms to comprise the totality of To Let Go and Fall. Original music composed and played by two sublime cellists, Jaqueline Ultan and Michelle Kinney (who perform together with a pair of percussionists as the group Jelloslave), provides interludes between scenes and underscoring during parts of the play. Ultan and Kinney are each perched on a clear Lucite platform set in the large pool that occupies most of the stage, so the music itself seems to drift ethereally from the water.
Arthur is a devotee of the work of choreographer Merce Cunningham and his artistic and life partner, composer John Cage, and quotes from the beautifully yearning love letters Cage wrote to Cunningham between 1943 and 1944, found after Cage's death in 2009, adding a literary element to River's play. Though Arthur and Todd are dancers, the actors do only small bits of dance during the play, but two accomplished ballet dancers (Conner Horak and Da'Rius Malone) engage in a tender pas de deux, with elegant choreography by Penelope Freeh, captured on video by Maxwell Collyard and projected on the rear of the Ritz's stage, alternating with views of the iconic Lincoln Center structures that surround the plaza. In this way the art of dance is brought fully into To Let Go and Fall, as well as the art of film, with odd camera angles and editing allowing us to see the dancers intersect in ways not visible to those who would simply watch them perform on stage.
Three pairs of stellar actors take on the roles of Arthur and Todd at different life stages. We first meet them in their middle age, with Andre Shoals (Arthur) and Mark Benninghofen (Todd) both conveying the cocktail of wisdom gained, regrets, caution, and deep affection for one another. Of the two, Shoals comes off the better, no doubt as Arthur comes across as a transparent, fully-formed person while Todd conveys a sense of holding himself back and needing to apologize for himself.
As teenage aspiring danseurs, Austen Fisher (Todd) and Jon-Michael Reese (Arthur) reveal two very different perspectives on entry into the rarified world of balletTodd raised by both his mother and father in a more privileged, white background in California; Arthur, a black youth raised by his financially strapped grandmother in the Bronx. These differences may be part of what attracts them to one another, but they also place a strain on their relationship, which comes more fully to light in their mid-twenties, as played by JuCoby Johnson (Arthur) and Tyler Michaels King (Todd). Michaels King projects Todd's giddy exuberance over being successful and in love, pivoting to fears about where his path will lead, while Johnson (who has been everywhere this season) imbues Arthur's keen understanding of who he is and what he can expect, a reserve of both tenderness and strength.
Sherri Eden Barber is a New York based director making her Twin Cities debut. She orchestrates the transitions between time frames with seamless grace, and makes good use of the playing area available for the actors (as the majority of the stage is occupied by the Milstein Pool), including having the characters in turns walk tight-rope like on the low wall around the still water, like a classically trained Tom Sawyer.
The elegant setting designed by Maruti Evans sprawls across the entire stage floor of the Ritz Theatre, fully exposed from floor to ceiling, with neither proscenium arch nor side wings, offering an illusion of being upon that lively public space, rather than looking at a stage set that resembles such a space. Mary Shabatura's lighting adds further nuances to the emotional roll of the narrative.
To Let Go and Fall is a beautiful, heartfelt play, a success for playwright Rivers and for Theatre Latté Da. It uses an array of artistic expressions to kindle questions about how we look back at the passions of our youth, the decisions we made that led us from there to here, and the choices facing us in what lies ahead. Stunning work.
To Let Go and Fall, through June 30, 2019, at the Ritz Theater, 345 13th Avenue NE, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $39.00 - $51.00, Student/Educator discount, $15.00 starting one hour before curtain, valid ID required. $13 for 13 program: $13.00 tickets for residents of Zip Code 55413, cash only, available in person during business hours, M-F, 10:00 AM 5:00 PM. All discounts are subject to availability. For tickets call 612-339-3303 or go to theaterlatteda.com.
Playwright: Harrison David Rivers; Director: Sherri Eden Barber; Original Music: Jacqueline Ultan and Michelle Kinney; Choreography: Penelope Freeh; Dramaturg: Elissa Adams; Scenic Design: Maruti Evans; Costume Design: Sarah Bahr; Lighting Design: Mary Shabatura; Sound Design: Kevin Springer; Hair and Wig Design: Paul Bigot; Projections Design: Kathy Maxwell; Projections Videography: Maxwell Collyard; Fight Director: Annie Enneking; Properties Master: Abbee Warmboe; Stage Manager: Todd Kalina; Assistant Stage Manager: Kyla Maloney; Technical Director: Bethany Reinfeld.
Cast: Mark Benninghofen (Todd, 51), Austen Fisher (Todd, 16), Conner Horak (Dancer), JuCoby Johnson (Arthur, 25), Da'Rius Malone (Dancer), Tyler Michaels King (Todd, 25); Jon-Michael Reese (Arthur, 16), André Shoals (Arthur, 51). Cellists: Michelle Kinney and Jacqueline Ultan.