Jonathan Walters

The inner quest for Utopia

Hand2Mouth's "Psychic Utopia," about Oregon utopian movements, brings the search for a "beautiful and bold life" to the audience

A Hand2Mouth ensemble member is kneeling onstage a few feet away from me and makes eye contact. “What have you done to live a more beautiful and bold life?” she asks. I knew this question was coming but I still feel a sense of panic when the fourth wall breaks down. I tell her, and the audience around me, “I allowed myself to be vulnerable.” I don’t elaborate on what that means. She smiles beatifically, repeats my answer, and turns to someone else and asks the same question. This question is at the heart of Hand2Mouth’s new devised show Psychic Utopia.

At first, it’s a little hard to tell what kind of show Psychic Utopia, which is created by the company with collaborating writer Andrea Stolowitz, is going to be. You’re offered warm hand towels on entry and invited to take your shoes off. During the preshow the actors mingle with audience members. I imagine it’s like going to a spiritual retreat.

In search of Utopia, in search of self. Photo: Chelsea Petrakis

The beginning of the performance is signaled by the ensemble gathering around a glowing cube and exhaling one long harmonic note together. The actual significance of the preshow and this ritual isn’t as important as what they are doing: Setting the tone for the show. Inviting the audience to engage actively with what they are about to experience.


Berlin Diary: chasing ghosts

Andrea Stolowitz's play about family history and the continuing shadow of the Holocaust is funny, smart, and haunting

Berlin Diary, Andrea Stolowitz’s engrossing and surprisingly funny theatrical detective story that opened Saturday at CoHo Theatre, is a play about memory and loss and the force of history, and about the limitations and possibilities of the theater itself. A deep delve into the Portland playwright’s family history and its intersection with traumatic events in public life, it’s prompted by the discovery in the U.S. National Holocaust Museum archives of a diary her Jewish great-grandfather, Dr. Max Cohnreich, kept in 1939, three years after he had escaped with his immediate family to New York as part of the larger family’s own mini-diaspora, leaving Berlin for Argentina, America, and elsewhere while the getting was still good.

After ignoring this evidence of a possibly altered reality for several years, Stolowitz decided to follow it into its murky past. She spent eight months in Berlin, running down clues hinted at in the diary, trying to understand what happened to her extended family, which lore insisted had been fortunate – everyone got out alive – and trying to discover, in the process, why her family seemed so distant and disassociated from one another, not at all the close happy bosom of a family that Stolowitz wished so fervently it were.

Erin Leddy and Damon Kupper, history detectives. Photo: Owen Carey

What she discovered through many often frustrating interviews and a mass of new information lodged free from city archives shook Stolowitz’s sense of what she thought she knew. It also shook her sense of what others might want to know. “I suppose what’s gone is gone,” an aunt sighs at one point, and yet Stolowitz’s growing conviction is that that’s not true: what’s past is crucial to the present and future; time moves and shapes itself in successive and coexisting tidal waves. Forgetting or denying is an evasion, a burial of the communal self, that broods and bruises.


Hand2Mouth has its own ‘Idaho’

'Time, A Fair Hustler' updates Gus Van Sant's 'My Own Private Idaho'

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.

Erika Latta and Julie Hammond in "Time, A Fair Hustler."/Anna M. Campbell

Erika Latta and Julie Hammond in “Time, A Fair Hustler.”/Anna M. Campbell

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

The stage adapts to the strange world of ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’

A new production of Ursula K. Le Guin's great novel will get you thinking about sex and gender...

I just finished reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness” for the first time in decades, spurred by the new production by Portland Playhouse and Hand2Mouth Theatre, which opened on Saturday. It’s amazing. The planet Le Guin created brims with the possibility of stories and plots because its structure is so strong and dense with detail, observation, carefully constructed cultural practices, geology, history. She could have spooled out dozens of plots without exhausting her planet or her reader.

And then, just as we’re starting to understand this whole kemmering business, it all ends. Le Guin had other planets and times to visit.

For the uninitiated, kemmering is the sexual practice of the humans on the planet Gethen. Those humans are neutral, sexually speaking, for most of their 26-day cycle, and then when they enter the kemmer state, they can be either male or female, depending on which side of them emerges with their partner in their three days or so of coupling. I don’t think anyone works during a kemmering period. And some people have a kemmer partner for life; some just head over to a kemmer house and encounter others who are in the same excited state. Oh, and a Gethen can both sire and bear a child, depending…


When Le Guin wrote the novel in 1969, she was ahead of the curve on gender issues back here on Planet Earth. People were coming to grips with the idea that sexuality was more like a spectrum joining male and female, and that nearly all of us weren’t “purely” either one or the other. Pressed, I’d say that we never fully embraced that idea, primarily because the culture constantly divides us into one or the other, though sexual mores have changed since then.

The gender exploration is what I mostly remembered about the novel, when I sat down with it this week. But its so much more than that. The stranger, the journey, the authoritarian society v. the country that seems more like a family quarrel than a nation, the impact of a harsh climate on culture, power, relationships with “truth,” customs of reserve and revelation, mystical practices, an encounter with aliens.

Le Guin could have written around this creation forever. She didn’t, which leaves us with so much imaginative space to fill ourselves, which is even more fun now, I found, than back in the day.


Julie Hammond and Damian Thompson in "The Left Hand of Darkness"/Portland Playhouse and Hand2Mouth Theatre

Julie Hammond and Damian Thompson in “The Left Hand of Darkness”/Portland Playhouse and Hand2Mouth Theatre

A production of a play is a “reading” of the script by the director, players and designers—a practical analysis. A script based on “The Left Hand of Darkness,” this one by John Schmor and Hand2Mouth artistic director Jonathan Walters (who also directed this production), is a “reading” of the novel—a practical analysis that leads to its conversion to a theater script. We can judge it a couple of ways, if we’re inclined to judgment and humans tend to be. We can decide whether or not its reading opens up the text in interesting ways for us, for example. Or we can base our judgment on how sturdy a platform it creates for the interpreters who are going to read this script. And then we can make a judgment about that interpretation, if we want.

The primary advantage a novelist has over a playwright? Space and time and the reader’s imagination. So, Le Guin talks a LOT about kemmering: she explains it in anthropological terms and then gives examples over the course of the novel. As a reader, I can picture this intercourse as, gulp, intimately as I choose. “The Left Hand of Darkness” has a lot of talk about sex in it, sex consummated and sex repressed, without ever becoming the least bit specific about it.

It has just as much “winter”: Gethen is a very cold planet, sub-arctic at its warmest, and Le Guin never lets us forget it. Usefully, her main character, Ai Genley, is an envoy from the confederation of human-controlled planets, the first to attempt an alliance with Gethen, a stranger who is puzzled by the hermaphroditic aspect of kemmer and who shivers in the cold. He’s always explaining things to us, sometimes at length.

That explication and repetition, theme and variation, transferred to the stage would have the audience squirming uncomfortably for several hours. So, yes, compression.

l’ve gone this long without a plot recap. Do you need one at this point? I admit that I do. Envoy Ai arrives on Gethen as the first ambassador of the Ekumen, a confederation of 83 planets and the nations on them. Gethen has been spotted and “probed” a bit, but Ai is the first deliberate contact. His mission is to convince Karhide, where he lands first, to form an alliance with the Encomium, which as the name suggests is a benevolent organization. He lands in the middle of border dispute between the clans of Karhide and the bureaucrats of Orgoreyn, and he misunderstands a lot of what’s going on around him, specifically with regard to Prime Minister Estraven. Pretty soon both he and Estraven are on the outs in Karhide and then out of the frying pan and into the fire of Orgoreyn.


I thought that Schmor and Walters analyzed “The Left Hand of Darkness” respectfully and well. They had some stage “fun” with the top bureaucrats of Orgoreyn and the mad king of Karhide: The cast made the leadership of Orgoreyn bureaucracy (I love how close it is to Oregon) seem like the 17th century French court, wackily expressive and guileful at the same time, and Lorraine Bahr plays the king of Karhide, who doesn’t SO mad in the novel, with a dark battiness.

And without the time and space to develop the culture as fully as the novel does, they suggested it with songs. I liked both of these choices: some things work BETTER on stage than the page, and an adaptation ought to take advantage of those things. I thought the song and movement could have been better, though I know that sort of thing can take a huge amount of rehearsal time.

I’m thinking of Hand2Mouth’s “Something’s Got a Hold of My Heart” here, which I thought was truly first-rate in this regard. But I saw it at the end of its run and after it had been two years in the making. I couldn’t help thinking what “The Left Hand of Darkness” would have been like after a performance process like that one.

I wished that Schmor and Walters had pushed the characterizations of the envoy Ai and his counterpart on Gethen Estraven a little more. They hewed close to the novel with them, very straightforward, and there’s room for more exploration. Ai is relatively young (suspended animation of some sort allows him to space travel) and that suggests some ways to take him, for example. And Estraven’s life has already been wracked with loss when Ai meets him (I’m using the male pronoun as Ai does in the novel), and maybe that’s a starting point for that character? I don’t know, I’m just thinking out loud.

This isn’t to disparage the actors in those roles, Damian Thompson as Genly Ai and Allison Tigard as Estraven, because they do excellent work carrying us through the story. Their best moment was their closest, when they come close to entering kemmer together (or kemmering or whatever the proper term would be), and in fact, that’s the best example of the sexual part of the Gethenian cycle in the play.


I’ve mentioned that Gethen is cold. Ai is always complaining about it, and the epic journey at the end of the book is over a giant glacier field, the Ice. That’s almost impossible to convey on stage, especially if the theater is quite warm, as Portland Playhouse was on Saturday. Ice, you say? How about a little for my forehead and neck.

Epic is hard to pull off, of course, but this production manages, mostly by clearing the stage and using props wisely. We move from place to place in our minds, just as we would in Shakespeare’s scene-jumping plays, notably “Antony and Cleopatra.” So is “androgynous.” What do people without specific gender identities look like and how would conventionally gendered humans play them? The production mixes men and women together covered by heavy clothing, and that seems to do it, and Tigard as Estraven is quite successful somehow.

The cast mixes Hand2Mouth regulars (Matt Dieckman, Julie Hammond, Liz Hayden, Jeb Pearson) with Portland Playhousers (Thompson, Bahr, Jason Rouse), and they work together seamlessly, each playing a number of different roles.


So, should you read the novel before you see the play as I did? Well, I’m always in favor of a little preparation, I suppose. It helps to keep things straight right from the beginning. On the other hand, the play seems clear enough without this aid. My case for reading is simply that the pleasures of these characters, this story and the delicious details are a joy to repeat.

As I read, I found myself thinking about the issues Le Guin raises: the global view of the outsider who knows so much about so many other worlds but can still get confused in the maze of the particular; Le Guin’s interest in mystical practices (future telling, mind-to-mind communication) and religion; what “gender” really means; and lots of other things. And then the play underscored them, one way or another.

I enjoyed the narrative imperative of the play—to tell the story economically. At something like 2.5 hours, maybe it’s a little long on a warm evening, though much more cutting would have meant a “reconception” of the novel. That’s not something I’m against necessarily, but with Le Guin herself in the audience and the novel close to hand, I preferred the longer take. Maybe you will, too.

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