The new production Time, A Fair Hustler by Hand2Mouth at Artist Repertory Theatre is loose and jumpy, thoughtful and spasmodic, poetic and nostalgic. That’s fair enough, too, because Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho on which it is based, shares a lot of those adjectives, except maybe for the nostalgic part. The primary difference? Hand2Mouth’s show, which runs the ridgeline between “play” and “presentation,” is relentlessly about Portland, where Portlander Van Sant made the film, and the movie is more about a few characters who belong to the demi-monde of street hustlers that happens to be in Portland.
At least that’s how I read it. When I saw the movie back in 1992, I really didn’t focus at all on its Portlandness (or lack thereof). The plot, with its clear reference to the relationship between Falstaff and Prince Hal in Shakespeare mixed together with a character study of one of the hustlers, Mike, didn’t exactly track for me, either, as it crisscrossed the Northwest and then took a vacation in Italy. What I loved was the feel of the movie, the dark and dreamy atmospherics, which mostly emanated from the cinematography of Eric Edwards. My Own Private Idaho was poetic, surreal, and beautiful because of that exploration of the boundaries of filmmaking more than anything else, at least as I saw it.
So for me, when I heard that Time, A Fair Hustler, was going to make the Portland connection clearer, I was immediately interested, though I wasn’t sure how that would work out. And now that I’ve seen it, that clarity of purpose overlaid on Van Sant’s movie has some clear benefits—and pleasures. If you know My Own Private Idaho, I think the Hand2Mouth take on it will deepen your experience of the original. If you don’t know it? Well, Time, A Fair Hustler may seem a little on the confusing side. Intriguing, though, and once you read the lengthy program notes, it should all come clear.
Time, A Fair Hustler does not recreate My Own Private Idaho scene by scene (as Van Sant famously did with Psycho—turnabout may have been an interesting case of fair play!). The scenes it does appropriate are flashbacks. Instead, it is set in the present at some sort of public event, though whether it’s a legal proceeding on the disappearance of Mike or a general inquiry into the Portland of the late 1980s, it’s hard to say. Characters from the film “testify” about what happened, sitting at a table and speaking into a microphone, except they are 25 years older than they were then. As they get specific about an event, they flip into flashback mode, and the scene they are describing unfolds.
You’re going to get the most out of Gary (played with the right kind of good-naturedness by Jason Rouse), who is frank about the connection between his hustling and his drug use and then frank about his attitudes about today’s Portland hipsters. They couldn’t handle what I was up to for an hour, he says. Today, of course, he works at New Seasons has a wife and kids, one named Typhoon, and suppresses his anger over the constant customer questions about the price of kabobs. The testimony from Gary, Bob (Jean-Luc Boucherot as the Falstaff character in the movie), and Hans (Anne Sorce as a customer and admirer of Mike and Scott) successfully implant Van Sant’s movie in Portland, in a specific place not just a general milieu, where you can while away the night at Quality Pie or squat in the abandoned Governor Hotel or pick up tricks downtown. Scott (Erika Latta) is the mayor of Portland now, so his memories are carefully sanitized, even though as the Prince Hal figure in the movie, he was at the center of everything. This politician is a careful fellow—and anguished, too.
As a story gets started, the cast finds a space among the rows of chairs on the stage to enact it, and in these flashbacks, Mike figures prominently, Mike and Scott, best friends as they say to each other constantly.
Scott and Mike. Any new version of My Own Private Idaho must deal with the incandescent performances by River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, incandescent because of how deeply felt they were, especially Phoenix’s as the narcoleptic Mike, whose friendship for Scott grows into something much more. Van Sant skated around Mike’s sexuality a bit in My Own Private Idaho; the explicitness in the film came directly from Phoenix, who improvised the famous campfire scene in which Mike declares his full-blooded affection for Scott. But yes, Phoenix, who would be dead of a drug overdose in a couple of years, a habit possibly begun during the filming of My Own Private Idaho, and Reeves, who was on the cusp of becoming a global star: They are going to be difficult to bring to a stage.
Director Jonathan Walters has cast Hand2Mouth company member Julie Hammond as Mike and Erika Latta, artistic co-director of New York’s WAXFACTORY, as Scott. The gender switch makes sense to me, just because it end runs the casting problem, and in Hammond and Latta, Walters has actors capable of sketching the necessary complexity of their characters in just a few strokes, frequently repeated for effect. So, Latta is always straightening Scott’s posture into a power position, a pose, that also becomes a “male” marker of sorts, though because of the gender swap, we instantly question how male those postures actually are. For her part, Hammond is always running her hands through her hair, pushing it back, as though Mike is re-setting a bit each time.
Scott, as the heir apparent to his rich father (who is also Portland’s mayor), has pride of place in the gang of hustlers led by Bob, and yes, just as Prince Hal does in Shakespeare’s Henry trilogy, he’s going to turn his back on the whole bunch. Maybe that’s clearer in Time, A Fair Hustler than it is in the film. Do we imagine that this Scott and this Bob (Scott’s father figure) are going to stay in touch? Not a bit, if only because it’s immediately apparent from the testimony we’re receiving. But Latta plays Scott as a remote Prince, allowing himself the friendship with Mike, but not much else, and it’s a bit of a problem, because it leaves Boucherot’s performance as Bob out to dry a bit.
Hammond’s Mike is preoccupied, too—there’s a mother to find in Idaho, his dangerously close relationship to Scott, his sudden fits of narcolepsy that leave him collapsed on the floor. Hammond doesn’t try to link these aspects together; she allows them to play out in turn, disparate shards of consciousness, of desire, of biological interruption. Her Mike’s intense vulnerability emerges from this, and whether or not we remember the last sad scene of the movie, when Mike is picked up off an empty stretch of Idaho and deposited in van, we fear for this Mike as much as we did for Phoenix’s.
The bottom line, though, for those worried about how you do Phoenix and Reeves on a Portland stage: Don’t worry about it. Latta and Hammond are striking, partly the result of Walter’s clever repetitions and staging of their entrances and partly their own habitation of these characters. Unsurprisingly, their relationship ends up being just as central to the stage version as it does to Van Sant’s movie.
Hand2Mouth belongs to a small subset of Portland theater, alongside Imago and Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble, that is working on a kind of theater that doesn’t have to be linear narratively but does want to hold your interest second by second, using language and images and movement. Anne Sorce’s appearance here underscores this approach—she’s also an Imago regular and she fits in perfectly here as Hans, a customer and an observer/reporter of Mike and Scott. A minor character in the film, Hans becomes gives us crucial information in Time, A Fair Hustler, and Sorce’s performance is so clear about Hans’s own stake in things that we trust his account.
Maybe more importantly, as an Imago player, she’s used to non-traditional circumstances on stage. That’s important because this is a non-traditional theater. Hand2Mouth devised it in workshops using the film as a starting point and then many hours of conversations with the real street hustlers from the time of Van Sant’s movie. (Van Sant was intending to cast the film from among them until Phoenix and Reeves showed up and made Hollywood-level financing possible.) And the company enlisted playwright Andrea Stolowitz to help with the script. But moment to moment, it’s a little unsettling, funny sometimes and blunt, spiraling downward inevitably to the mostly sad current day manifestations of the characters from the film.
In a way the film and the play version are about lost friendships, a subject most of us know well, because few friendships are forever. But they are also about how important those lost friendships once were. One could portray this on a stage in the usual way, or one could sit Sorce down in front of a microphone and have her define friendship in that German accent of Hans:
“If my friend wants to learn to drive a stick, I teach him even if I’m on Vicodin.”
Time, A Fair Hustler continues at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison, 7:30 pm Thursdays-Sundays, 2 pm Sundays, through August 16, $15-25, tickets through Hand2Mouth.