Mary Zimmerman’s poetic play “Metamorphoses,” which closed at the Guthrie Theater in mid-May, is not the only show this spring to use an onstage pool as a dramatic centerpiece. Theater Latté Da premiered Harrison David Rivers’ memory play “To Let Go and Fall” at the Ritz Theater in northeast Minneapolis on Saturday. It features a rectangular pool of glassy water, underscoring the show’s themes of reflection and retrospection.
The six-member acting ensemble gets to play in the water alongside barefoot cellists Jacqueline Ultan and Michelle Kinney of the Minneapolis group Jelloslave. The musicians are stationed in the pool for the duration of the 80-minute one-act, accompanying the action with a live rendition of their original score. By turns melancholic, contemplative and sweet, the music gives the drama a filmic touch without being emotionally manipulative.
Rivers draws his title from a love letter exchanged by one of the most famous couples in the arts world: Composer John Cage wrote to dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham about the conflicting emotions he felt with their love. Additional themes of trust, affection and fear suffuse “To Let Go,” which is full of suggestive gestures (choreographer Penelope Freeh created the graceful movements) and takes place in a New York City affected by racial friction and the specter of AIDS.
The playwright, who majored in dance as an undergraduate at Kenyon College in Ohio, has a thematic thing for beautiful movers. “The Bandaged Place,” his play about domestic abuse, orbits a dancer, while his musical “Five Points,” which premiered at Latté Da in April 2018, is about a black dancer and a white dancer who found common ground hoofing it up in Civil War-era New York.
The two dancers at the center of “To Let Go,” staged elegantly by Sherri Eden Barber, are also of different races, but far more contemporary. Todd is the only child of white parents of means who live in Manhattan. Arthur is a black youngster who grows up with his struggling grandmother in the Bronx. They meet in a dance class, a place where their talents, and their hearts, should be all that matter.
“To Let Go” captures Arthur and Todd at three life stages — when they meet in the 1980s at ages 15 and strike up a relationship, when they have a fateful parting at 25, and when they reunite with what seems like some finality at 51, an age viewed as old by the playwright and many young people.
Three sets of actors play the characters, starting with André Shoals and Mark Benninghofen as the middle-aged adults reflecting on shared experiences and recriminations; Jon-Michael Reese and Austen Fisher as the lusty teens and JuCoby Johnson and Tyler Michaels King as the 20-somethings.
Once they enter, cast members sit onstage, with the two older sets of characters looking back. They often do subtle, stylish work as they track the natural decline of dancers. Shoals and Benninghofen especially have lovely chemistry, with Shoals signaling his character’s inner life simply by staring at the water with a smile or having a memory change the mood on his face. Benninghofen has an apologetic mien — after all, his Todd is the one to make a tough, somewhat thoughtless choice.
If “To Let Go” feels like it is as much a tone poem as it is a work of drama, it’s partly because director Barber lets the show breathe on Maruti Evans’ gorgeous, hyper-modern set. The pacing allows for the characters’ emotions and memories to reach the audience like thoughts rippling out from pennies dropped in a pool.