Expectations are high when celebrated artists set out to adapt popular work. Such is the case for A Single Shard, which Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan (The Kentucky Cycle) rendered for the stage from the 2002 Newbery Medal-winning children’s book by Linda Sue Park. The play is up through March 18th at Seattle Children’s Theatre.
A Single Shard, set in twelfth century Korea, follows an orphan boy, Tree Ear, on his journey of ascent from destitution to self-forged opportunity, from homeless squalor to relative security. Even struggling to eke through life, living under a bridge with the crippled Crane Man (so named for his twisted leg, which affects a characteristic stride), Tree Ear looks toward a bright future (which does not foreshadow itself), minds his character, and sets himself diligently to the physical and mental work of bettering himself. He undergoes a Hero’s arc, which leads him to distant lands, through various dangers, tries his spirits, and ultimately rewards his fortitude and integrity.
Tree Ear lives in Ch’ulp’o, home to a thriving and very competitive community of potters, which has earned for the town a reputation for beautiful ceramic craftsmanship. As the story begins, Tree Ear is outside of all of this, looking dotingly in. He admires the work being so carefully created around him, particularly the work of the patient and ornery Master Min, but with his low social standing and lack of resources, Tree Ear is disregarded and taunted as a pariah.
It’s a reflection of Min’s confidence in his own powers as an artist that he is the only potter not to work behind closed doors. He has no secrets to conceal, as even if another potter were to bear witness to Min’s process, Min’s work would remain unique (and superior) for his particular, tediously cultivated set of skills. He holds himself so the highest conceivable standard, working very slowly, and destroying more pieces than he completes–we see the creation and destruction of several pots onstage, Min working with clay and a potter’s wheel.
In respect and adoration, Tree Ear has developed a habit of spying on Min as he works. When one such session results in the boy breaking one of the master’s creations, Tree Ear offers to work to repay the debt of his clumsiness. When the debt is settled, Tree Ear continues to report to ‘work,’ striving for an opportunity to be taken on as a student, and valuing the tender relationship he’s developed with Mistress Min, who feeds him generously. There is a great deal of projection going on, Tree Ear reminding both Master and Mistress Min of their deceased son. The two respond to this antithetically: the Master resents the drumming up of deep pain, and lashes out; the Mistress enjoys remembering warm feelings of love, and reaches out.
But Master Min suffers from limitations of his age. When an emissary for the Emperor sends word of a pottery commission, the Min regrets to concede that he is too old to deliver his own work for evaluation. Tree Ear is consequently entrusted with the important and perilous charge of conveying the priceless pieces, and sets off on a daunting peregrination.
The events of Tree Ear’s journey become tremendously dark, darker than anything I’ve ever seen in a children’s play. We see a flashback, a depiction of a group-suicide of concubines who, willing to die to preserve their honor, throw themselves from a cliff, and are likened to “falling flowers.” Standing atop the same precipice, we see our hero consider the prospect of suicide, consumed with the hopelessness of what he assumes is an irreparable failure. None of this is gratuitous or graphic, it isn’t dwelled on and is handled tastefully, but it might give some parents cause for pause.
Some beautiful puppets and a lovely and quiet set design are aspects deserving of particular praise. Shifting from location to location fluidly, A Single Shard ushers the attendee from the bridge Tree Ear calls home, to the workshops of potters, through mountains and valleys, into a palace, across land and sea. It’s a story abundant with moral conundrums–‘what’s the right thing for Tree Ear to do in this situation?’–that stimulate critical thought without condescending with simple fixes or nickel-and-dime wisdoms. These elements of the production coalesce to form a sweeping tale that people of any age stand to enjoy, which upholds the importance of virtue and character. It’s the story of a young man forming himself, like a mess of clay, from something full of unorganized potential into something beautiful, and good.
Thursday through Sunday, times varying, through March 18 // Seattle Children’s Theatre, 201 Thomas Street // $20 – $36, schedule and tickets available here