peerless will have generations of parents and current as well as former teenagers laughing in concert.
peerless by Jiehae Park. Directed by Louisa Proske. At Barrington Stage’s St. Germain Stage, Pittsfield, MA, through August 6.
By Helen Epstein
In a note to the script of peerless, playwright Jiehae Park writes “this play is a comedy. Until it is not.” With its staccato rhythms, short scenes, and farcical characters, unlike any you’ve ever seen before onstage, it’s hard to know how to characterize this play, except to say that it’s unexpectedly wonderful.
This production of peerless (which premiered 2015 at Yale Rep) begins with a thick yellow mailing envelope landing with a thud on the stage, as if dropped from the sky. It’s a precious college acceptance letter, not from any college but The College that several students in the Midwestern high school in which the play is set have applied to – Early Admission.
The two protagonists of peerless are Asian twin sisters L and M (of unspecified nationality though my informed guess would be Korean) who have deliberately moved to this “nowheresville” for a better shot at getting into The College. L has even decided to repeat a year so that she can apply as a legacy admission a year after her sister is admitted. Dressed in identical sweaters and skirts, with matching red and yellow backpacks, they finish each other’s sentences as they rant about an equally accomplished white classmate who managed to Get In because he’s one-sixteenth Native American. The twins have done their research; they have discovered that, in the past, when something has happened to the acceptee from their high school another was taken in his place. So they decide to murder him.
If you live in a town like Brookline or Lexington, Massachusetts, or if you know anything about the surreal and pressured high school scene today, you are familiar with the application experience: the obsession with test scores and grade-point averages, the crafting of heart-rending college essays, and the outrageous number of extra-curricular activities. In this play, however, parents are left out of the equation completely. It’s all about a diverse cast of adolescents – the perfectionist Asian twins, the Caucasian nerd, the African-American boyfriend, and the slothful Goth Girl who doesn’t seem to give a damn. What Park does with this cast of characters, fit to populate a TV high school sit-com, is inspired; she spins them into an absurdist revenge tragedy with bits of Macbeth and the Wizard of Oz thrown in. There’s poison, a stabbing, a seer/witch, guilt, sleeplessness, and a visitation by a ghost of the dead.
Director Louisa Proske has assembled a terrific cast and directed them with breathtaking speed. Yet she has not neglected attention to detail of word and gesture, giving the proceedings great style and élan. The 90 minutes without intermission feel like 15 and are accompanied by the most original sound design (by Jeremy Bloom) I’ve heard so far this summer. But back to the cast: the twins are played by the young actors Laura Sohn and Sasha Diamond and I would be hard-pressed to say which one is the most engaging. Like Asian versions of Amélie, they are fresh-faced, spunky, bright, and funny but also ruthlessly ambitious. Their timing and delivery is spectacular, as is their agility in a hilarious fight scene choreographed by Ryan Winkles.
Ethan Dubin as the clumsy, nerdy white boy with a tree-nut allergy is a perfect foil for the two girls, as he talks about his single mother and handicapped brother. The high school dance at which they ensnare him is brilliantly evoked, as is the shabby basement apartment where he meets his tragic end. Ronald Alexander Peet and Adina Verson are colorful supporting players.
The moving set by John McDermott makes the creative most of a small stage and the costumes by Elivia Bovenzi perfectly complement the wacky, unconventional script. I particularly loved the twin outfits (which reminded me of Archie and Veronica comics) and the vertical bed in which the identically-pajamad twins slept.
This is a rare play that manages to cover a lot of territory: it is a meditation on contemporary American culture, the insanely competitive climate of higher education, and the particular contribution of Asians to the current pressure cooker environment. The playwright, who is a graduate of Amherst College, is surely writing from experience. Her play will have generations of parents and current as well as former teenagers laughing in concert. The production is not going to be around very long — I would grab the opportunity to go see it.