IT'S THE MOST ambitious undertaking on the 2012/2013 theater calendar: an adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin's groundbreaking sci-fi novel The Left Hand of Darkness, developed by two very different theater companies with input from the author herself.
On opening night of Portland Playhouse and Hand2Mouth Theatre's co-production, Le Guin received a standing ovation from the crowd—but there was a distinct sense that the cheering was more for Le Guin herself than the show we'd just seen. Hand2Mouth and Portland Playhouse deserve nothing but props for taking on such a challenging project, but the script has serious problems: Adapting Le Guin's high-concept sci-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 Genly has been sent in order to do a little intergalactic alliance building.
That's a lot of information to convey in a single act, and the show muddles through by interspersing overly expository scenes with 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. 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 II, which is largely Genly and his friend/ally Estraven (Allison Tigard) making their way across the aforementioned glacier. While the first act alternated jerkily between movement-heavy sequences and talky bits, the second act balances those elements much more effectively, 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 as "Portland Playhouse scenes" (character based, dialogue heavy) and certain moments as "Hand2Mouth scenes" (movement based, wordless). Whether the breakdown in the collaborative process was that clear cut, I don't know, but there are strong moments from both camps: Genly and Estraven 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 "kemmer house" helps to ground a show that often feels bogged down by exposition. Ultimately, though, the entire first half of the show is dedicated to giving us the information we need to understand the second half, and the payoff isn't worth the slog.
Left Hand is something of a train wreck, but it's the best kind of train wreck: I'll take an ambitious failure over a pedestrian success any day of the week. It was bold of these companies to take on a project as complex and multifaceted as this one—that's its own sort of triumph.