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Theater Commentary:

"GAME OF SHARDS" at Breadline Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

The Chicago theater community has been steadily supporting local playwrights. This summer boasts two festivals featuring readings of new work sponsored by Prop Thtr and the Playwrights Collective. Chicago Dramatists and Victory Gardens represent two of the most recognizable year-round nurturers and producers of world premieres by Windy City writers.

But what about taking this idea a step further and empowering actors to fully engage in the process by becoming collaborative playwrights? Paul Kampf, founder-artistic director of Breadline Theatre, decided to experiment with a new way of generating material and helping actors find their inner writers’ voice. A longtime pioneer of original work, Kampf has favored challenging, non-linear plays – many of them written by him – that combine different disciplines within a framework of erudite pondering.

Breadline’s latest world premiere, "Game of Shards," was spearheaded by Kampf, who originally guided eight actors through a series of five five-hour writing workshops. They poured out random, unedited thoughts, which eventually led to the intense shaping of words into a viable script. In the end, five actors stuck with this difficult, but ultimately exhilarating, project.

The result is a compelling two-act play, "Game of Shards," which succeeds at merging timely metaphors within a recognizable and immediate dramatic structure. And, although the piece can be shaved down from over two hour to about 90 minutes, it has the capacity to touch audiences so deeply because its words have welled up from the performers’ souls. The idea of actors not portraying, but "being" characters, holds especially true here. A part of each one of them is woven into the play’s touching, lyrical and shockingly honest dialogue.

Kampf directs his five strong and varied cast members with an almost meditative grace. "Game of Shards" is literally set in an unemployment office. Figuratively, this inherently desperate and hope-sapping locale represents the sense of futility many people may feel when they examine their lives and try to reconcile their true motivations with the often confusing, shallow and misguided expectations of society. People reduced to the generic information they fill out on forms is a powerful theme for our increasingly dehumanizing times.

Various stories interlock as we gradually begin to understand the anonymous people looking for work and, subsequently, purpose. Craig Koski (A.F. Mulvaney), a naïve and absurdly boastful man recently laid off from a corporate job, slowly exhibits signs of low self-esteem and a burning need for self-worth achieved through the love of another person. He is attracted to Alicia Stratner (Julie Gonnering), a psychologically ravaged woman going though a divorce and coping with the loss of her young daughter. They quickly find themselves in contact with their fellow unemployed lost souls: Carl Withers (Paul Kneer), a small-time con man wanting a better life, and Marcus Daniels (Abu Ansari), Carl’s friend and unwilling accomplice who realizes that he may not be long for this world.

Another subplot involves Marcus’ tormented finacée Rebecca (Lisa Stevens), who finds her way to the apartment of Clyde (Wayne Temple), a gay man/ringleader who helps finance Carl and occasionally has contact with Marcus. Rebecca and Clyde bond over booze and bitterly truthful bon mots. Presiding over these characters’ urgent search for meaning is Alex Polk (Heather Carpenter), the self-doubting employment office worker who holds their destiny in her fragile hands. Throughout the play, Alex attempts to assemble a mosaic of shattered glass – an image that frames the action yet is never overwrought. It is also mirrored in Alicia’s exquisite memory-infused monologue about how she took a pair of scissors to her heirloom wedding dress and cut it to shreds.

The heavy-handed nature of the play is balanced with incisive doses of humor provided by the acid-tongued but traumatically lonely Clyde. The ensemble could, however, tone down the operatic crying, yet even their tears fuel some of the work’s more achingly poetic moments (particularly Clyde’s gentle tear-reading segment).

Unlike some recent plays I’ve seen, which tend to spew ideologies rather than develop characters and insightful plots or negate structure of any kind to merely appear trendily boundary-pushing, "Game of Shards" takes its issues and characters seriously. The actors may not always speak directly to each other in close proximity, yet their bonds are very real and empowering.

Carpenter, Ansari, Kneer and Temple stand out for their deeply felt portrayals. The scenes between Temple’s Clyde (who moves convincingly from coolly diabolical to a candidly witty emotional mess) and Stevens’ hapless but determined Rebecca feature some of the most engaging, purposeful and frank dialogue I’ve witnessed on stage. Geoffrey Epperson’s moody, minimalist sets quietly pull us into this soul-searching surreal world capable of confronting our confounding realities with grit and grace.

When the fanatical, puzzle-shaping Alex realizes that she is not the sculptor but the final piece, the creators of "Game of Shards" have discovered a profound bridge between the randomness of fate and our abilities to pave a fulfilling path toward our unknown destinies.

Let’s hope Breadline continues its commitment to ensemble-generated work and encourages other companies to do the same.•

"Game of Shards" runs through June 15 at Breadline Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice. Tickets: $10-$15. Call 773-327-6096 or log onto www.breadline.org.

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