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Theater Latte Da's new work goes big with structure and set design, personal and grounded with characters

'To Fall and Let Go'

'To Fall and Let Go' Dan Norman Photography

In To Let Go and Fall, the middle-aged Arthur (Andre Shoals) and Todd (Mark Benninghofen) are joined by their teenage selves (Jon-Michael Reese and Austen Fisher) for a flashback. Absorbed in the younger actors' exchange, it takes a minute for you to realize: the elder characters are sticking around to watch, too.

Eventually, actors playing the same men in their 20s (JuCoby Johnson and Tyler Michaels King) join the ensemble, supplemented by dancers (Da'Rius Malone and Conner Horak) who tower above all six in video projections designed by Kathy Maxwell. In Theater Latté Da's world premiere of a script by Harrison David Rivers, it's an approach that makes effective use of the unique possibilities of theatrical storytelling, collapsing time and space before our eyes.

The unusual structural properties of To Let Go and Fall also include a pair of cellists (Michelle Kinney and Jacqueline Ultan of Jelloslave) who perform their original score live from platforms in the middle of an onstage reflecting pool. Ceding center stage to these affecting musicians creates a challenge for director Sherri Eden Barber, but it's one she deftly negotiates with strong support from lighting designer Mary Shabatura. We always know where the action is, even when the timelines start to intersect.

Underneath all these attention-grabbing flourishes is a movingly understated love story about two men whose powerful connection is battered by the winds of homophobia and racism amid the surging AIDS epidemic in the '80s and '90s. The longtime romantic and professional relationship between composer John Cage and dance artist Merce Cunningham is a reference point for both Todd and Arthur, who meet in an intensive ballet training program. Could such a relationship be possible for them?

Rivers is a star playwright whose other recent premieres on local stages include This Bitter Earth at Penumbra Theatre and Five Points by Latté Da, both last year. To Let Go and Fall shares many features with This Bitter Earth, which was also a powerful play, but the new work tops it with the effective use of a larger-scale production.

In addition to the poignant overlap of actors and the visual metaphor of dance, the music makes an impact that it's hard to overstate. Composer/performers Ultan and Kinney draw from the vocabulary of Cage via Philip Glass, who combined minimalist leanings with a neo-romantic expressiveness that was very en pointe, so to speak, in the '80s dance world.

The setting is further established by Maruti Evans' clean set, which meets the challenge of evoking a very specific real-world location — the Paul Milstein Pool and Terrace at Lincoln Center — while providing the flexibility for a complex narrative to unfold.

None of this would work if that narrative wasn't compelling, and Rivers has crafted an aching love story that gradually gains dimension as the men anticipate, relive, and remember a crucial turning point that could have gone differently. Rather than trying to match specific mannerisms, the multigenerational actors focus on maintaining the essential through-line of the dynamic between these two men: Arthur quietly devoted, Todd passionate but mercurial.

All six actors are effective, but fundamentally this is a story about the elder pair; Benninghofen and Shoals embody the duo with subtlety and charm, cherishing their shared past while keeping their eyes open to the future.

IF YOU GO:

To Let Go and Fall
Theater Latte Da
345 13th Ave. NE, Minneapolis
Through June 30; find tickets at
www.latteda.org