Monday, May 6, 2013

The Left Hand of Darkness—Portland Playhouse—NE Portland

Who Are We, Anyway?
Ursula K. Le Guin’s Sci-fi novel is adapted for the stage by John Schmor and Jonathan Walters (who also directs, and is Hand2Mouth’s Artistic Director, a co-producer of this production).  It plays at the theatre’s location, 602 NE Prescott St., through June 2nd.  For more information go to www.portlandplayhouse.org or www.hand2mouththeatre.org or call 503-488-5822 (P/P) or 503-235-5284 (H2M).

This story brings up so many possible questions that it boggles the mind.  It touches on such issues as the nature of Love, gender identity, causes of war/violence, tolerance vs. prejudice, inherent traits as opposed to learned ones, et. al.  No definitive answers, of course, but for writers/readers/viewers of Sci-fi/Fantasy, anything is possible.  The fact that these questions are even being asked is a good thing.  It means that we, as a race, are still curious and, so far, no laws against that.

The views of the future, by most writers of this genre, are pretty bleak, with large doses of gloom and doom.  But also, in most of those kinds of stories, there is always a hopeful quality and character(s).  It means, I suppose, that there will always be some measure of kindness/goodness/compassion/tolerance within the human spirit and that we will endure.

To get the full impact of her story, it’s best to read the book, as it has lots of rituals, rules and history that can’t be presented on a stage in a couple plus hours.  But Mr. Waters and Schmor do an amazing job of getting to the essence of the story.  It takes place in the far distance future when we have inhabited other worlds.  One such planet s called Winter and the atmosphere lives up to its name.  They have no war but the populace seems to be struggling with identity, as the people can change from one gender to another and are only engaged in sexual practices a few days each month, when it seems to become an orgy.

They don’t seem to be specifically happy or focused and rules/laws can change in an instant.  Their philosophy seems to be, “life is tolerable because of uncertainty, not knowing what’s coming next.”  Into this mix comes Genly (Damian Thompson), a “pervert,” as he is specifically male and is not androgynous.  He is an envoy/messenger from another planet, trying to generate interest in a type of United Nations among planets.

He encounters a sympathetic ear in the Prime Minister, Estraven (Allison Tigard), who introduces him to the King (Lorraine Bahr).  But the King is quite mad and ends up exiling his/her P/M and throwing Genly into prison.  A rescue by Estraven forces them to both flee the country.  The second act is mostly the trip by the two of them through the mountains, to reach a place where Genly can signal his ship to rescue him.  On this journey they depend on each other for strength, hope and companionship.  One can assume that a new order will emerge from this fated encounter.

This is only a thumbnail sketch of the plot of the play, which is fuller and, in return, is a condensation of the actual novel.  But the questions it raises are fodder for dialogue far into the night.  Who are we, really, is at the heart of it.  Do ones’ prejudices, as a song reflects, have to be “carefully taught…to hate and to fear,” or are they inherent?  Is violence/war inbred or learned, a question asked by Golding’s, Lord of the Flies, too?  Are we born of sin or innocence, and have to be educated in the other?  And how will relationships change if there is no gender issue/identity?  Monumental and fascinating questions from Ms. Le Guin’s fertile imagination.

Mr. Thompson, as Genly, is articulate, moving and totally believable in his portrayal of one of the centerpieces of this show.  We identify with his frustration in trying to comprehend an un-comprehensible society.  Ms. Tigard is excellent in creating a role that is not gender specific.  A difficult assignment, as she transverses the delicate barrier between two worlds, showing beautifully the struggle of her birthright, and a brave new way of looking at Life.  And Ms. Bahr as the mad king is excitingly explicit in portraying the eccentricities of this erratic character.  A joy to watch.

The rest of the small cast, playing multiple roles, deserves to be mentioned, too:  Matt Dieckman, Julie Hammond, Liz Hayden, Jeb Pearson, and Jason Rouse.  The movement, chanting, voicing of their various incarnations is terrific.  And Maeve Z. O’Connor as the Child has a wonderful stage presence but is unable to be heard, mainly because of the whirring of the fan to cool the theatre.  In fact, it also interfered with hearing some of the dialogue of the adult actors, too.

The costumes (Emily Horton) are simple but effective.  The songs, well conceived by Jana Losey Crenshaw, are also an important part of the atmosphere of the show.  And the set designer, Peter Ksander, is ingenious in creating the second-act mountains.  Again, simple but very effective.  The director, Mr. Walters, seems to have a clear understanding of the text and has created a harmonious connection between it, the actors and the environment.

I recommend this show but it is essentially for adults.  If you do go, please tell them Dennis sent you.