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Hand2Mouth rethinks Gus Van Sant's film for the stage

COURTESY ALEX HUEBSCH - Erika Latta (who plays Scott Favor, in leather jacket) and Julie Hammond (Mike Waters) plays male stars in Hand2Mouths Time, A Fair Hustler, a stage adaptation of the movie 'My Own Private Idaho.' Hammond works for Hand2Mouth, and Latta works out of New York City.Made 25 years ago, “My Own Private Idaho” solidified Gus Van Sant’s standing as one of the pre-eminent moviemakers, and portrayed — almost glamorously — Portland street life, disassociated youth, and the meaning of friendship.

This summer, Hand2Mouth theater company, with full permission from Van Sant and New Line Cinema/Warner Brothers, rethinks the movie and puts on a stage production — “Time, a Fair Hustler” — from a present-day perspective and looks at what became of buddies Mike Waters (played by the late River Phoenix in the movie) and Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves).

In a unique twist, Jonathan Walters, Hand2Mouth artistic director, has cast women to play the lead roles. A Hand2Mouth actor, Julie Hammond, plays Mike, and Erika Latta, a New Yorker, plays Scott.

“Because we cast them with women, nobody will make the comparison (to Reeves and Phoenix),” Walters says. “And, it allows them to play young men with puppy-dog maleness. Having women do that, straightforward, is an interesting look.”

Walters says the movie, released in 1991, resonated with him for personal and artistic reasons. He was a teenager in Texas at the time, and it inspired him to move to Portland. Then, in 2001, Hand2Mouth used an adapted Van Sant screenplay for a production, “The Posture Queen,” a postmodern mortality tale based on the life of Tommy “Issan” Dorsey, a sailor drag queen, junkie, commune leader and Zen Buddhist master. It was a “big coming out party. It put us on the radar locally,” Walters says.

“We were fascinated with doing another iconic art work from Portland’s past,” Walters adds. “In the course of thinking about a film, Gus came up, and this film captures such a moment in time. We thought this would be a perfect project, and it’s a lucky happenstance it’s the 25th anniversary.”

Hand2Mouth has been doing “Time, a Fair Hustler” workshops to prepare for rehearsals and the full staging in July and August. It’s been a long time in the making. The play has received much community financial support, including $45,000 from the Oregon Community Foundation’s Creative Heights grant.

The highly regarded independent film followed the lives of Mike, a gay street hustler, and Scott, his best friend and the son of the Portland mayor, and their road trip to Idaho and Italy in pursuit of Mike’s mother. (Yes, it’s a simple explanation for deep and complex characters and theme.)

“There’s something about that male friendship road movie that is so strong and striking,” Walters says. “Their only real concern is what life’s about, who’s your real friend and how you find happiness — no normal society worries or hangups.”

But Walters says the movie was the movie, and it should be expanded on rather than copied. In “Time, a Fair Hustler,” it’s 2015 in a very different Portland, and nobody knows where Mike is, and Scott has become what his father was — the mayor. “We’re joking that we’ll make T-shirts, saying ‘Scott Favor for 2016,’” Walters says.

Hammond says Hand2Mouth spent time during the production of “The Left Hand of Darkness” finding gendered and nongendered physicality and voice.

“It feels less about playing a man and more about finding Mike,” she says. “There are a few things in standing and holding myself in space, but it doesn’t feel like I’m ‘playing’ Mike. I won’t deny the importance of Mike being a man, but I think the goal is that, after a minute, the audience forgets that I am a woman. ... I’ve watched the movie a few times, and I started watching for Mike’s energy — the tiny movements, looks, sniffs, shifts that reveal so much of his comfort and discomfort.

“In some ways, Mike is a hugely tragic character, but he’s also basically a teenager wrestling with the intense cauldron of emotions and desires shaped equally by love of adventure and life and childhood traumas,” she says.

Adds Latta: “I will be influenced by the way Keanu Reeves held his body in the film, the way he physically moved, and then add my own interpretation of his movements in response to the themes of the play. I will ask myself, ‘How do you carry your body and navigate through the world when you have experienced loss, and what extreme situations will you place your mind and body in, in order to deal with the yearning for love from a parent who has abandoned you?”

The story and the movie — including its Northwest imagery — touched both actors. “It’s this mosaic of yearning and loss, both humorous and beautifully painful to watch,” Latta says.

Adds Hammond: “It’s a love story, but it’s also a great road adventure and a portrait of the intense friendship that seems to arise only at certain times of life.”

Walters knows that audiences will enjoy the project, which includes input from people who were in the film or worked on it, Portland citizens from the time, and homeless people. Archival images and music will be used, as it will tell the story of a changing Portland as well. It stages with previews July 28-30, and performances July 31 through Aug. 16 at Artists Repertory Theatre. (There’ll be a work-in-progress show at Artists Rep, 3 p.m. May 31.) For info:

“We just sent Gus the script (recently),” Walters says. “He’ll be (in Portland) this summer. We hope he attends the show.”

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