Review: ‘A Single Shard’ at People’s Light in Malvern, PA

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How does a plain pile of clay become a work of art? The courage of an artist to create something out of nothing infuses the recent regional premiere of A Single Shard, now playing at People’s Light in Malvern. This moving tale of a poor orphan in an imagined 12th century Korea inspired Director Seema Sueko with its powerful use of transformation, a tool she wields with great skill to create an epic journey of courage and redemption that has moments which are nothing short of magical.

(l to r) Jeanne Sakata, Thom Sesma and Brian Lee Hunynh. Photo by Mark Garvin.
L to R: Jeanne Sakata, Thom Sesma, and Brian Lee Hunynh. Photo by Mark Garvin.

The story, adapted by Robert Schenkkan from Linda Sue Park’s Newberry Award-winning novel, follows the young poor orphan boy Tree-Ear to the Ch’ulp’o village and his makeshift house under a bridge. Outcast in his society and without a real family, Tree-Ear becomes fascinated by the local artisan, Master Potter Min. After accidentally shattering one of Min’s precious pots while admiring it, Tree-Ear offers his service as an apprentice to repay the value of the broken piece. It is his courage and tenacity along with an incredible resilience in the face of complete hopelessness that leads this young boy to fulfill his destiny and find the sense of belonging and love that he searched for all along.

“Depends on how you look at it,” the wise Crane Man tells the young boy, urging him to take a second look before deciding just what might be true. And just as Tree-Ear sees beauty in the simplest of forms, Seema Sueko creates a series of stunning moments out of the most basic elements in her adventurous staging. Her minimalist aesthetic utilizes the actor’s bodies and voices to transform time and space in what can only be described as pure theatricality, in the best sense of the word. An empty hand actually contains a palm full of delicious rice, or a basic staircase becomes a steep and dangerous mountainside, igniting the audience’s imagination to fill in the gaps wherever possible. Nothing is exactly what it seems. The production is both delicate in its approach and resounding in its emotional depth.

As Tree-Ear, Brian Lee Huynh is a humble yet energetic force, leading a diverse cast who reflect the People’s Light commitment to telling inclusive stories. This unique chorus draped in white becomes everything from foxes to rivers, peasants to royalty, with a light and fluid movement styled by ensemble member and choreographer Jungwoong Kim and accompanied with music by Daniel Perelstein. Graham Smith is a delightfully wise Crane Man, keeping the young orphan on track while sharing in the pains of the outcast life. Jeanne Sakata is invigorating as Min’s Wife both in her stalwart honesty and her comedic timing. And Thom Sesma as the Master Potter himself brings every bit of stoicism and gravitas that balances the equation, while simultaneously earning deep affection.

Set Designer David F. Weiner transforms the stage into a long and narrow village, which in turn becomes a collection of different moments and places within the tale. Bodies of water and stealthy dangers are hidden here and there and cast members poke in and out of unseen places, highlighted by Porsche McGovern’s complex lighting design. Moria Sine Clinton’s costumes lay the foundation for a collection of neutral storytellers, with Tree-Ear and Crane man in a shabby yet rich focus, and then layer on top as each new character lends their voice.

Although the story alone is quite simple at its roots, it is Seema Sueko’s staging that brings this adaptation to life with a talented ensemble who blend well in their uniqueness. A Single Shard explores the heights and depths of the human journey in both the ordinary and the spectacular beauty of community.

Brian Lee Hunynh and Graham Smith. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Brian Lee Hunynh and Graham Smith. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.

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A Single Shard plays through Sunday, May 29, 2016 at a People’s Light – 39 Conestoga Road, in Malvern, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (610) 644-3500, or purchase them online.