Review: Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘Left Hand of Darkness’ at Portland Playhouse


By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly

An envoy from another planet is visiting a group of “foretellers” — psychics — on the planet he is visiting, Gethen.

To test their powers, they suggest he ask a question, preferably one they could have no foreknowledge of. He asks whether the nations of Gethen will join the Ekumen, an interplanetary league of nations, for which he is there on a diplomatic recruiting mission.

The foretellers begin chanting, lights flash on and off, eerie music fills the theater, the foretellers dance on the striking, immersive blue set, patterns on their robes glowing in the occasional darkness.

The spectacle enchants, and, if one is not completely onboard with the play, can feel a little long, and tangential to the story’s thrust, which, if one has not read the novel from which it’s adapted, can feel elusive.

Portland Playhouse and Hand2Mouth’s original adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness” (playing at Portland Playhouse through June 2) presents the story in an almost picaresque way, dropping the viewer into scenes with little context, and often little clue as to it’s anyone’s motives.

In some senses this puts us on a level field with the envoy, Genly Ai (the fine Damian Thompson), who has come from earth to the frozen Gethen, and is their first alien visitor.

We rarely get glimpses into Genly’s inner thoughts, however, and with others he tends to be all diplomat, all the time.

The second protagonist is Therem Estraven (the excellent Allison Tigard), who quickly loses their post as Prime Minister of Karhide, the nation in which Genly first lands, for refusing to second the King’s views, and is forced into exile.

I call Therem “they” because the inhabitants of Gethen, we learn, have no gender. They experience sexual urges once a month during which partners involuntarily shift into complimentary female and male form for a day or two, although neither form is seen as more valued or preferable.

While novel, and perhaps even visionary for a story written in 1969, the topic of gender as it’s presented in the play, says nothing about the civil rights struggle being waged by gender variant people around the world today.

“Gender” is not a topic of concern to the Gethens. They occasionally refer to Genly as “pervert,” because he is always “in male,” as they say, and this annoys him when he hears it, but it’s not shown to be even a minor concern to him.

The ideas that unite Genly and Therem instead are curiosity, delight, and adventure. They are the reasons Genly has taken his mission, and why Therem breaks from the king and attempts to help Genly, risking their life and leaving their child in the process.

The story often feels like a cold war allegory. In Karhide, Genly encounters a nation ruled by fear, where any sign of disloyalty leaves one open to being branded a traitor, as Therem is, recalling America’s McCarthy era. Orgoreyn, the second country Genly explores, is ruled by a Soviet-style central government, made up of Commensals. They betray him and send him to “voluntary work farm” where he’s tortured.

The high government types are played for satire in the production. Lorraine Bahr as the King and Matt Dieckman as Commensal Mersen are especially delightful in their scenery chewing turns. The fear and corruption ruling the two nations presented block the opportunity for discovery Genly’s mission presents and stoke Therem’s and his idealism.

Therem rescues Genly from certain death at the work farm, and the second act depicts their journey across a giant glacier to reach a radio Genly can contact his ship from.

This journey, like the encounter with the foretellers, is both spectacular, and slightly remote. Once again the stage is transformed, this time into a geographical expanse, and sound light and smoke, along with Tigard’s and Thompson’s fine acting, draw the audience into their struggle, to a point.

While their journey gradually takes on a weight, which builds to a quite rich conclusion, one still longs a greater emotional connection with the two. Their dialogue, while incrementally more intimate, comes in a sort of “reason speak,” familiar to anyone who’s watched “Star Trek.”

The design and execution of “The Left Hand of Darkness” are superb throughout. The costumes suggest the androgyny of Gethen nicely, and the minimal furnishings augment the wonderfully alien feel of the rich blue set.

One may not always feel engaged by this ambitious new play, but he, she or they will likely feel challenged and moved.

The Left Hand of Darkness at the Portland Playhouse through June 2.

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