Finally. An AIDS play that gets to the heart of the matter. To begin with, there is a tendency in plays and films about the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and ’90s to be heavily freighted in political assumptions that frankly were and still are not fully thought out. One might actually say these plays evade to some extent the full picture of suffering for the benefit of ideology—ideology still pervasive among many gay men across the generations. This tendency can either overwhelm the human component so that sometimes it’s hard to tell if we’re getting a soapbox or a story. However, with To Let Go And Fall we have a story—and a very human story indeed.
In what is the best of playwright Harrison David Rivers’s recent stream of strong work, To Let Go And Fall is the masterwork and is a resplendent contribution to the AIDS play canon. Sherri Eden Barber has directed its luminous world premiere for Theater Latte Da at the Ritz Theater.
Rivers bends the audience imagination by crafting Arthur and Todd, a gay couple at three different times in their lives, so that at some points all three are on stage simultaneously. This works because six different actors portray them at a water pool setting outside the theater where the American Ballet Theater performs, the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center. Maruti Evans, scenic designer, and Sarah Bahr, costume designer, have a lucid feeling for the place and the clothing of those who live for the arts.
In 1982, the men are gifted 16-year-old dance students driven by hormones, insecurities, misconceptions, and passion. In 1991, as the plague has ravaged the city’s gay and bisexual populations, as well as the performing arts, the 25 year olds face an anguished fork in their careers and relationship. In 2017, they’re 51 and reassess how to live as men who still love one another in the tumultuous teens of the 21st century.
Jon-Michael Reese and Austen Fisher flicker with adolescent volatility as an endearingly modest Arthur at 16 and a sweetly mischievous Todd at 16. The psychic layers of age and shared and unshared history are rendered beautifully with a wounded sense of wisdom by Andre Shoals as Arthur at 51 and Mark Benninghoffen as Todd at 51.
However, it is the couple as 25 year olds that strikes a nerve. Wrestling with the epidemic’s relentless decade of nightmarish agony and unceasing parade of funerals and final visits, each are suffocating, not from the disease, but from the blanket of collective and personal despair that hangs over and within them. Rivers has uncannily crystallized the era with utter genius. Better than Tony Kushner, frankly. Though on a par with Larry Kramer. That said, Kramer’s The Normal Heart (1985), drenched in politics that sometimes borders on distortion, nonetheless, captures the era brilliantly too. But Rivers, having the benefit of distance writing three decades plus later has found a way to get to the heart of what Kramer understandably was struggling against in the 1980s amidst asphyxiating indifference and fear. The two plays would be great companion pieces in repertory.
Crackling like fireworks as the 25-year-olds are JuCoby Johnson and Tyler Michaels King. They may just break your heart when you think that these two pups are just too young to have to grapple with such horror and gnawing anxiety! There are echoes of Jesus and Judas Iscariot that emanate from the script and the performances are riveting. They make it clear to us why it was so often said that this was young gay America’s Vietnam.
Johnson and King, through their deep psychic connection to Rivers’s words, amazingly channel the panicked, hysterical sensorium of an era. In 1991, AIDS was still a potential death sentence with physically torturous and horrifically emaciating characteristics. By ’91, these two young characters have long dwelt in the apprehension of that. Johnson and King elicit that to visceral bedrock effect.
One of the trickiest choices to make succeed in a non-musical stage production is to have musical accompaniment that seldom if ever stops throughout. The danger is that it will distract and overtake the intentions of the script spoken. Not so here, however. Latte Da shimmers with celestial original music composed and performed live on stage by two extraordinary cellists, Michelle Kinney and Jacqueline Ultan. Their music enchants, as if it exists as one with the air breathed by the characters and the audience watching them.
At points, alluring footage of two fluid dancers, Da’Rius Malone and Conner Horak choreographed by Penelope Freeh, appear in the background. Maxwell Collyard’s videography and Kathy Maxwell’s projections add breadth to the visual look of a play that spans over a period of time. Mary Shabatura’s lighting finds lovely moments as well.
Rivers was inspired to write Let Go And Fall from reading love letters between composer John Cage and dancer-choreographer Merce Cunningham. Todd and Arthur are clearly artists who live in the reverberation of the contribution these significant 20th century gay talents made to New York City and to American cultural history.
To Let Go And Fall
Through June 30
Ritz Theater, 345 13th Ave. NE, Minneapolis