As tastefully restrained spectacles go, there aren’t many shows that can compete with the new play, A Single Shard, which had its world premiere at Seattle Children’s Theatre on Feb. 24. Clay pots are created and destroyed on stage; life-size crane, deer and fox puppets alternately menace and enchant; and dancers in swishing silks enact 12th-century Korean dances to music that is both spare and haunting.
Set during the height of Korea’s ceramics boom, A Single Shard traces the ascension of Tree Ear (Jason Ko) from homeless orphan to apprentice to the greatest craftsman in the pottery mecca of Ch'ulp'o. Based on the 2002 Newbery Medal-winning children’s book by Linda Sue Park, the play has been crafted by Seattle’s playwright and Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Schenkkan. Expectations are high when prize-winners are paired on a new project, and Schenkkan doesn’t disappoint, lending the script a great deal of the epic sweep of The Kentucky Cycle, which debuted in 1991 just a couple blocks away at Intiman. Thankfully, A Single Shard lacks The Kentucky Cycle’s epic run-time of six hours, coming in at a kid-friendly hour-and-a-half.
The set, designed by Carey Wong, deserves top billing on its own. It is dominated by a series of towering, gently staggered screens covered with inky landscape paintings that would be perfectly at home in an exhibit of centuries-old masterpieces at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. The stage gradually elevates in a sinuous curve, forming the bridge under which Tree Ear lives with his quasi-adoptive father, Crane Man (Ho-Kwan Tse). Trapdoors open to represent filthy clay pits, stairs are transformed into a cliff off which brightly clad concubines leapt 500 years earlier, and a cozy hut is created in a quiet corner with little more than the addition of a functional potter’s wheel and a blob of clay ready to be worked.
Like that lump of unformed clay, Tree Ear is raw material waiting somewhat impatiently to be molded into more than the village’s often-mocked “orphan boy.” Slowly starving, he compulsively watches the resident master potter, Min (Scott Koh), as he plies his trade outside his cottage. Unlike the other potters in town, Min creates his art in plain sight, so confident in his abilities that he feels no need to hide his trade secrets.
However, he’s also a dreadful perfectionist. “He’s terribly hard on himself. Destroys most of what he makes,” Tree Ear tells the affable Crane Man, so-named for his crippled leg and swooping, crane-like gait. An avowed realist, Crane Man is unusual among the “wise old man” stock characters of children’s theater, in that he discourages his young companion from dreaming impossible dreams.
Fatalistically, but in the most genial manner possible, he counsels Tree Ear to chase dreams that are possible but just haven’t happened yet. There will be no miracle cure of Crane Man’s twisted leg, no deus ex machina return of Tree Ear’s long-dead parents. Instead, there will be hard work, hunger, disappointment, and two pointed allusions to suicide.
This could have been one of the darkest plays ever created for the 8-and-over crowd, but under the direction of Linda Hartzell, the tone is always optimistic without being saccharine. In keeping with the clay-colored tones of Nanette Acosta’s period costumes, the characters are allowed to be earthy without becoming soiled by the death, poverty, and casual cruelty that surrounds them.
“Maybe pottery is what clay dreams of,” says Crane Man, and ultimately, his philosophy of patience and unyielding honesty both rubs off on and pays off for Tree Ear. There is a disarming lack of guile in the interplay between Ko, who is still in college and made his professional stage debut on Feb. 24, and Tse, who is a veteran of big-budget movies, including two from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
Amid the moments of imparted morality, there are fights with fists and swords, graceful dances choreographed by Sinae Cheh, and a meditation on intellectual property rights that Microsoft’s lawyers might find interesting. The plot, which has the simplicity of a fairy tale, is elevated by Schenkkan’s poetic use of language. Laundry drying in the wind is likened to crane’s wings, while women dying for honor are compared to falling flowers.
None of it feels self-indulgent, however. Schenkkan seems to be acutely aware that he is a filter for the creative vision of Park as the story’s originator, and that this is, above all, a production intended for consumption by children. Min’s rejection of Tree Ear because he reminds the aging man of his dead son, and his wife’s acceptance of the boy for the same reason, are introduced with the brevity that such obvious emotional tropes deserve.
Schenkkan clearly trusts his young audience to “get it,” and never feels compelled to belabor such modern issues as disability, homelessness, or the inequality of rich and poor just to score didactic points. In a theatrical genre that all too often feels the need to teach rather than simply present its art out in the open, like master potter Min, it's refreshing to see a play rely on the keen observation skills of the young.
If you go: A Single Shard is on stage through March 18 at Seattle Children’s Theatre. $20-$36. For more information, visit www.sct.org.