One of the tiny awkwardnesses of being a theater critic is seeing a show on opening night—surrounded by industry folk and friends and family of the cast and crew—and trying to figure out what to do during the inevitable standing ovation. I feel like a tool jumping up and clapping for a show I didn't really like, but grouchily staying seated while everyone around me stands doesn't seem like a good option either, so usually I go with a stand-and-collect-my-things maneuver.
I had no problem giving a full-on ovation at Saturday night's The Left Hand of Darkness, co-produced by Hand2Mouth and Portland Playhouse, when H2M's Jonathan Walters handed author Ursula LeGuin a bouquet. That got the crowd—and me—to its feet, and justly so. From my seat during Saturday's premiere, I had a good sightline on LeGuin, and I'll cop to sneaking glances at her during the show—it's not every day you get to watch a legendary sci-fi author watching a play based on her own work.
The show itself... Oh, it's kind of a train wreck. It's the best kind of train wreck—big, ambitious, all-chips-in—but the script is a mess. Adapting Le Guin's high-concept sic-fi novel for the stage couldn't have been easy, and it shows. The first act is almost entirely world-building: Establishing why a black man named Genly (Damian Thompson) has come to a planet full of androgynous white people; explaining how people on the planet are genderless until they go into heat (a period called "kemmer"), at which point a gender identity temporarily asserts itself; and attempting to sketch out the loyalties and conflicts on the planet Gethen, where Gendry has been sent in order to do a little intergalactic allegiance-building.
This is a lot of information to convey, and the show does it almost entirely through exposition, and disconnected, tough-to-follow vignettes. (I wish they'd scrapped the framing device, in which Genly introduces the show as a story he is telling, because it keeps the stakes low—we know Genly is going to be fine, even when he's packed off to a work camp or trekking across a giant glacier.)
The show finds more solid footing in Act 2, which is largely Gendry and his friend/ally Estraven (Allison Tigard) making their way across the aforementioned glacier. While the first act alternated between movement-heavy sequences and expository talky bits, the second act balanced those elements to good effect, showing us how these two characters bond amid the danger and drudgery of their journey.
It's tempting to watch the show and point to certain moments (character based, dialogue heavy) as "Portland Playhouse scenes" and certain moments (movement based, wordless) as "Hand2Mouth scenes." And maybe that's how it shook down in rehearsals, I don't know. There are strong moments from both camps: Genly (Damian Thompson) and his friend/ally Estraven (Allison Tigard) have an odd, fascinating chemistry as they struggle to understand each other across vast cultural differences, while an acrobatic sex pantomime illustrating the goings-on in a "hemmer house" helps to ground a show that often feels bogged down by exposition. Overall, though, the entire first act of the show is dedicated to giving us the information we need to understand the second act of the show; the payoff isn't worth the slog.
All of that said—I didn't like this show, but I didn't like it in the best way possible: I'd rather see something ambitious fail than something pedestrian succeed. I love that these companies took on this project, and I hope it inspires more such collaborations in the future.
Tickets here, if you wanna see for yourself!