When Portland author Ursula K. Le Guin wrote The Left Hand of Darkness in 1969, she imagined it as a thought experiment. What would a world be like, she asked, where humans spent most of their lives as androgynous beings? A world where people only adopted sexual identities for a few days each month, and could become either male or female? What if traits were neither masculine nor feminine?
So it's fitting that this new adaptation of Le Guin's novel—of her thought experiment—is rather experimental itself. The show, co-produced by Hand2Mouth Theatre and Portland Playhouse and directed by Jonathan Walters, follows Le Guin's narrative but also incorporates stylized movement, haunting songs, an immersive synth score, a fog machine and cool blue lighting to transport the audience to Gethen, an icy planet populated by androgynous beings. Dressed in bulky wool and with faint streaks of gray across their faces, the ensemble moves in deliberate and fluid ways through the blue AstroTurf-walled space. We meet Estraven (Allison Tigard), the prime minister who has just been exiled for treason, and Genly (Damian Thompson), an envoy sent from Earth to build alliances. John Schmor's overstuffed script works hard to establish an intricate set of political circumstances, but it grows convoluted even for those familiar with the novel. Estraven's country recalls medieval Europe, complete with an insane—and in this case pregnant—king (Lorraine Bahr, with an unfocused and off-putting battiness). Eerily clinical interludes feature lab-coated scientists explaining the idiosyncrasies of Gethenian sexuality, and mystical foretellers and drunken politicians populate other scenes. By the end of the first act, we've arrived in a Soviet-like state, where Genly labors at a "voluntary resettlement farm" until being rescued by Estraven.
The second act changes course, charting Estraven and Genly's treacherous trek over a glacier and the thawing of their frosty relationship. It's here where the show gains steam. Though the first act establishes why Estraven and Genly have been pushed together, each exiles and aliens of their own making, it's not until later that their characters are developed. What unfolds in the compelling second act—as these two navigate foreign social codes and excruciating physical tests—doesn't need the fragmented, abstruse exposition provided earlier in the play. The two halves could exist independent of each other.
Despite the centrality of gender to Le Guin's novel, questions about androgyny and sexual difference in the play become secondary to the unconventional love story. With her white-blond hair and striking features, Tigard brings to mind Tilda Swinton, fiercely impassive and commanding. But Thompson, as the play's lone Earthman, feels phoned-in. The androgynous humans around him refer to him as a pervert, yet Thompson seems the least sexed of them all. (If you saw his violently seductive performance in last year's Brother/Sister Plays at Portland Playhouse, you know he's capable of more.)
"Ambitious" is often a euphemism for "unsuccessful," and there are pieces of The Left Hand of Darkness that are both. H2M and Portland Playhouse gave themselves a massive challenge in adapting Le Guin's dense and complicated novel for the stage. Best, then, to treat the play as an experiment: a gutsy leap into Le Guin's world, which these scientists and voyagers are still learning to navigate.
SEE IT: The Left Hand of Darkness is at Portland Playhouse, 602 NE Prescott St., 488-5822. 7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 pm Saturdays-Sundays through June 2. $23-$32.