Writing letters is, as we are told in Theater Latte Da’s To Let Go and Fall, a mark of all the great loves. Romantic though they may be, letters are not always enough to fill the emptiness of separation or to gloss over wounds. People are the beings who can do that. They are also the ones who cause the pain in the first place.
Harrison David Rivers’ new play with music, To Let Go and Fall uses real love letters between composer John Cage and modern dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham as the backdrop for a new love story between two ballet dancers.
Todd and Arthur met in the 1980s when they were 16 years old while at the American Ballet Theatre’s summer intensive program. Todd is swaggering and impulsive, with an attitude that is both playful and antagonizing. Arthur, on the other hand, is disciplined and measured, and when Todd pulls Arthur into his ever-changing moods, Arthur grounds them both. They both have dreams, and for a time, they have each other. They fall in love. One of them gets scared. And then they don’t meet up again for 26 years.
When the play actually begins, it is these two intimately familiar 51-year-olds we see first, played by André Shoals (Arthur) and Mark Benninghofen (Todd). As the conversation extends, we take pauses and skip through time, replaying memories and seeing how they got to where they are today. Although Todd and Arthur have changed, the place of all of these conversations, the pool and terrace at Lincoln Center, remains the same. It’s a witness to the choices they have made and a symbol of what was and what could be.
To Let Go and Fall has been created to be beautiful, and in many ways it is. Maruti Evans’ Lincoln Center pool is surrounded by a few park benches and white, airy screens that effortlessly become the canvas for projections cityscapes, dappled greenery, and dances by Conner Horak and Da’Rius Malone. Cellists and composers Michelle Kinney and Jacqueline Ultan reside in the water and provide the live music score that runs through the play. (Just so you know, the play is worth seeing again so you can focus more on their second script that swells underneath Rivers’ dialogue.)
Director Sherri Eden Barber brings out beauty in her six actors, which include Austen Fisher and Tyler Michaels King as younger Todds and Jon-Michael Reese and JuCoby Johnson as younger Arthurs. There is an ease of body, an eloquence of breath, and an unbridled emotion across all ages. The six actors are able to show the evolution of a person, flexing new traits while still nurturing their never-changing essence and vulnerabilities. They complete each other’s performances and help you over abrupt flash points, predictability, and a few cheesy lines.
The one thing the actors aren’t able to do is completely explain the ending. Everything tracks until one moment where it feels like a record skip, omitting a quiet but critical line. In its aftermath, I got confused: Is the staging telling me they are lingering to avoid goodbye? Or are they retreating to the safety of their separate lives?
No matter how you take the ending (and perhaps you’ll follow it perfectly), it reminds you that words are forever. Love letters, whether the feelings behind them fade or continue to burn, are a testament to what has been true. These words, epithets though they may be, are radiant. The difficult part is to be as beautiful—to live as honestly—as these intimate, secluded truths.
If You Go
What: To Let Go and Fall
When: Through June 30
Where: Ritz Theater