News Column

Adapting 'The Left Hand of Darkness' for the stage meant breaking the ice with author Ursula K. Le Guin

May 4, 2013

YellowBrix

May 04--It's late April, but under the Hawthorne Bridge lies a world of ice and snow and strangeness. While the rest of Portland enjoys an uncommonly dry, pleasant spring, in the rehearsal studio of Hand2Mouth Theatre two weary travelers labor across a treacherous expanse of Winter.

Roped together, Genly Ai and Therem Harth rem ir Estraven take heavy, deliberate steps, hop across dangerous gaps, even crawl when their strength fails them, for in the far northern waste of this cold-gripped planet, stopping to rest is not an option.

Until, of course, the scene concludes, and actors Damian Thompson and Allison Tigard confer with director Jonathan Walters, looking for ways to refine the illusion of a perilous escape across frozen wilderness.

That physically dramatic scene is hardly the only challenge Walters and company face in staging "The Left Hand of Darkness," an adaptation of Portland author Ursula K. Le Guin's science-fiction masterwork, running through June 2 at Portland Playhouse.

The planet Winter -- or Gethen, as its inhabitants call it -- not only has harsher weather than our Earth, but its people are androgynous. Neither male nor female except for a few days each month, and then shifting unpredictably toward one sex or the other, the Gethenians serve as what Le Guin calls a thought experiment, to examine what humans and human society might be like without sharply defined gender roles and other, perhaps related, dualistic ways of thinking.

"There was something about how slippery that was in my mind," Walters says about his attraction to the novel and the idea of trying to capture its essence theatrically. "Could you do that onstage, in a performance with actors? Could you create a genderless world? Could you conjure so many images and travel to so many different places? Could you create that much slipperiness and doubt and wonder?"

Over a few hundred pages, Le Guin provides a fascinating anthropological study (her father, Alfred Kroeber, was a pioneering cultural anthropologist) as it tells a wide-ranging tale of political intrigues and the fish-out-of-water love story, if you will, of Genly Ai, Earth-born envoy from a galactic federation trying to coax another world into the fold, and Estraven, a Gethenian politician.

"I really loved it as the most uncliched approach that I've ever read to the question of approaching the other: How you respond when you come up against someone other than you," Walters says, continuing to list his fascinations with the project. "And last but not least was the question of how would we cross the ice onstage."

New stage of the story

"I'm just so glad its not a movie," Le Guin says, after arriving midway through the rehearsal. "I've mostly had such bad experiences with movies of my work."

A 1980 version of "The Lathe of Heaven" produced by the public TV station WNET is the exception to the rule of Le Guin's celluloid disappointment. Despite sporadic reports of its rights being licensed, "The Left Hand of Darkness" has yet to hit the screen. But Lifeline Theatre in Chicago did create a stage version in 1995.

"So I knew it could be done, if you were imaginative enough to not try to do it literally," Le Guin says.

Before approaching Le Guin for permission, the experimentally inclined Hand2Mouth enlisted the more conventional Portland Playhouse as co-producer. The companies' combined reputations won over the author as well as the NEA, which awarded the joint project a $10,000 grant.

Initially, however, Le Guin neither committed to any personal involvement with the production nor, she says, gave any thought to what might get lost in the translation.

"I left all that in abeyance until I saw the first-draft script by (University of Oregon theater department head) John Schmor," she says. "I read that and thought, 'OK, we're getting off to a good start here. This guy knows what he's doing dramatically.' Writing a play to me is a total mystery, a kind of writing I cannot do. And he understands what the story was about. With all but one of the films that have been made from my stuff, they hadn't the faintest idea what the book was about, and they didn't care. They'd just got a name, a property."

Since then, Le Guin has visited rehearsals, consulted with Schmor and Walters and even edited later drafts of the script.

"When Ursula told us that of course the whole book doesn't have to be onstage, there was great liberation in that," Walters recalls. "I'd forgotten until recently that whole plot lines from the book are long gone in our version."

Le Guin is clear that page and stage are very different vehicles.

"I'm a storyteller. I pretty much start with A and go to B and so on. The way they do it onstage is mysterious to me. It's embodied by actual people, and that's so different from just telling a story. It fascinates me...but I can't do it. My gift is storytelling and poetry, not drama. And my books are not particularly dramatic. Some of them would be extremely difficult to put onstage."

Kemmerhouse rules

"I think this part is taking place like it's through frosted glass, like through a brothel window," Walters tells his actors. He's trying to impart a sense of what the lighting will be like onstage at Portland Playhouse for an interstitial scene that explains the phenomenon called kemmer, the Gethenians' monthly state of estrus, or heat, when hormonal changes bring out male or female characteristics and high sexual drive.

Despite the prominent role that Gethenian sexual physiology plays in "The Left Hand of Darkness," Le Guin admits that she was shy about including much sex in the book, in part because of the conventionality of the 1960s sci-fi audience. But, Walter says she told him, "If you're going to do the story now, you should show what goes on in a kemmerhouse."

As one actor delivers anthropological field notes, those behind him carry on a brief dance of choreographed lustfulness, then suddenly leave the stage.

"We need a non-funny way to finish," objects Liz Hayden, a Hand2Mouth regular. "We can't just make sweet, five-second love and walk off."

"That's what you think!," jokes Jason Rouse.

Sex, per se, isn't a big part of the story, but sexual identity and differentiation -- and the social constructions that follow -- are.

"I wrote that book in 1968," Le Guin recalls. "We were just getting into Second Wave feminism. We didn't even have the language in 1968. People didn't talk about gender, they talked about sex. The phrase 'gender construction,' which is kind of the key term for this story, didn't exist. People were beginning to ask 'What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a woman? Why does a woman have to be nurturing and a man has to be aggressive? Is that true?' And we're still asking the exact same questions all these years later.

"But back then there was a sense that nobody had asked those questions at all. So my way of thinking -- well, I can't really think. I think through telling a story. So the novel's a sort of thought experiment: What if you had these people, and they do have gender, but they don't have the same gender, and they don't have it all the time, so for maybe 25 days a month they actually have don't have a gender and they don't know which they're going to be, so you really pull the rug out from under the whole gender-construction thing. What have you got left? Do you have human beings or do you have something different?

"And what I found in the story is that, yeah, you have human beings -- and not all that different."

Worlds of emotion

Brian Weaver, artistic director of Portland Playhouse, offers that he's not a science-fiction fan, but was drawn in by what he calls "the central love story" in the Le Guin novel. "It's not what we normally think about as a romantic love story. It's an interesting kind of deep, human, transcendent love."

Weaver thinks the parts of the tale that address exclusion and the fear of the unknown will connect with his audiences. "But our traditional audience might be surprised at how avant-garde the show seems -- it's going to feel more like you're at the TBA festival than at Portland Playhouse. Conversely I think the Hand2Mouth audience will find something compelling in a more conventional, character-driven narrative arc."

The collaboration between two very different companies helps make the project an intriguing one for local theater fans. But while the production can approximate androgyny through clothing, voice or affect, the combined casting efforts failed to address another aspect of Le Guin's story.

The writer made a point, in "The Left Hand of Darkness" as in some of her other well-known books, to feature dark-skinned characters. Appropriately, the African American Damian Thompson stands out as taller and darker than those around him, as Genly Ai does in the novel. But instead of the book's tawny, broad-faced Gethenians, the rest of the play's cast is white.

"You work with what you've got," Le Guin says with a shrug. "I've always said the reason they can't make a movie out of this story is, where are they going to get two or three hundred Eskimo actors?"

Skin tones aside, Le Guin is engaged and supportive of this latest treatment of her work.

"I really hope it comes off," she says. "Emotionally, the people involved with it have got it right. And they've got a lot at stake; more than I do. A lot of people who never read science fiction avoid it because they think it's cold and intellectual, and some of it is. Mine is not very cerebral, but its fairly emotional and has strong moral currents. Which is something that the theater can do awfully well."

-- Marty Hughley

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(c)2013 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)

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