Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Jiehae Park's dark comedy Peerless brings this ordeal up to the current moment and places it under the harshest of lights, allowing it to serve as a stand-in for all hyper-competitive venture proliferated by our high stakes society. Theater Mu is presenting Peerless at the Gremlin Theater in a slick production with stunning performances that capture the ferocity of blind ambition.
A pair of Asian-American identical twins are rabidly obsessed with admission to the school (never named, but we can guess the buildings are leafed with ivy). These diabolical sisters will go to any lengths to obtain the single early admissions spot a school of that rarified status will give to a graduate of their high school.
Being standard bearers of the model-minority, M and L (those are the names Park has given them) forge plots to sabotage their classmates, using language that would be expected of a longshoreman, but straighten up and cast a broad, submissive smile, bowing gracefully, when any instructors pass. M is a senior; her twin sister L delayed starting school by a year, so she is a junior. M is the "smart" one (a 4.8 weighted GPA, 4.0 unweighted, clearly superior to L's 4.6 weighted GPA, 3.95 unweighted), so with the better odds, she will be accepted to "the school," and the following year, L will have sibling preference along with her other strengths, making her a shoo-in to join her sister.
Then, the unthinkable: Another student, named D, is given that solitary early admission spot. How could this happen? M knows she is smarter, has better grades, is in every conceivable activity, and writes brilliant essays. Could D have drawn sympathy by writing about his mentally disabled brother? Or did D receive points for his just-discovered one-sixteenth Native American ancestry, a minority far more under-represented than Asians? When M's boyfriend BF fails to be sufficiently supportive of her crazed anger, she breaks up with him. This gives D, heretofore a social pariah, the chance to ask M to the school's Hoopcoming dance. With much to lose without sibling preference in her corner, L devises a plot that will cause D to defer his admission to "the" school and give the spot to its rightful owner, M. Their ruthless plan depends on the premise that neither M nor L have feelings toward anyone but each other. One more character, called Dirty Girl, hovers around the action, acting as a savant whose prescient observations and warnings guide M in negotiating her way through entanglements with D, BF, and even with L.
Program notes say that Peerless was loosely inspired by Macbeth, and it is easy to see traces of the Scottish play here. In the diabolical scheming and symbiotic relationship between M and L, there are parallels to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, with L, like Lady Macbeth, egging M on when she begins to harbor doubts or hesitates to take action. Dirty Girl's wacky forecasts serve the same purpose as the incantations of Macbeth's three weird sisters, with BF, D, and D's brother, who also makes an appearance, the victims of the twins' raging ambition.
Lily Tung Crystal, who just last year took over the reins as artistic director of Theater Mu, directs her first production for the company with great success. She elicits fast-paced interactions between the characters that keep the audience drawn in to the narrative, and a spiraling sense of the absurdity of the twins' extreme ambition. She also effectively mines the play's barbed humor that skewers the way our society judges and ranks individuals, and how that system is gamed to give its scarce rewards to those at the very tip top.
Actual sisters (but not twins) Francesca and Isabella Dawis play the twins, M and L, respectively. Both actors bring comedic chops and the ability to convey guileless raw ambition to their dazzling performances. Their natural rapport and ability to flawlessly finish each other's lines adds greatly to their characterizations. M and L are differentiated by the different colors of their backpacks and hair bows (M's are red, L's are yellow), but otherwise the two are dressed alike (in costume designer Khamphian Vang's witty take on the preppy rich) and mirror each other's mannerisms and expressions with astonishing finesse, completely selling the premise of being twins, which they put to mirthful use when challenging D to tell them apart.
Neal Beckman, as D, is a special treat, bursting with energy as a boy who has long suffered from low self-esteem and defeatism, barely able to contain a new-found confidence as he begins to overcome his fears. It is a very physical performance that is also surprisingly moving, with a blend of vulnerability and shaky bravado. When he describes the TV show "Cheers" (his favorite) as being "about a bar... and Boston... and loneliness," a wisp of melancholy escapes that is absolutely heartrending. Meredith Casey as Dirty Girl and Kenyai O'Neal as BF give solid performances as characters that are not developed beyond their function in the narrative.
Joe Stanley's set is highly efficient, with a rotating rear wall that starts out as the locker-lined high school corridor and becomes the gymnasium, D's home, and the site of the honors college freshman orientation. Karin Olson's lighting and Kevin Springer's sound design contribute effects that ratchet up the uncertainty over M and L's next desperate measure. A fight scene that breaks out is especially well staged by fight choreographer Eric Pogi Sumangil. I would not be at all surprised to see actual bruises and scratches on the actors involved, though hopefully it is nothing but well-devised illusion.
With Peerless clearly framed as a comedy, we aren't meant to believe any students would go to the extremes taken by M and L to secure admittance to their college of choice. On the other hand, we have recently seen celebrity parents sentenced to serve time for doing some pretty extreme and illegal things on behalf of their college-bound kids. Peerless works as a satire of that mania, as well as spoofing the notion of a model minority and the competition for diversity points. Park's play is well constructed, with witty dialogue that captures the tones of high-achieving high school kids. Isabella and Francesca Dawis, along with Neal Beckman, deliver fantastic performances that seal the deal and make this a production worth your attention.
Peerless, a production of Theater Mu, runs through February 16, 2020 at Gremlin Theatre, 550 Vandalia Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: "Pay As You Are", $5.00 - $50.00. Recommended fair market price, $35.00. For tickets and information, please visit www.theatermu.org or call 651-789-1012.
Playwright: Jiehae Park; Director: Lily Tung Crystal; Scenic Design: Joe Stanley; Costume Design: Khamphian Vang; Light Design: Karin Olson: Sound Design: Kevin Springer; Props Design: Kenji Shoemaker; Fight Choreographer: Eric Pogi Sumangil; Dramaturg: Annie Jin Wang; Associate Director: Katie Bradley; Stage Manager: Lindsey R. Harter; Assistant Stage Manager: Jaya Robillard.
Cast: Neal Beckman (D/D's brother), Meredith Casey (Dirty Girl/Preppy Girl), Francesca Dawes (M), Isabella Dawes (L), Kenyai O'Neal (BF).