4.0 average? Check.
16 APs? Check.
10 different extracurriculars? Check.
Trip to Africa to help the poor and hungry? Check.
But what if even all this isn’t enough to get into The College? This is the premise of “peerless,” written by Jiehae Park and directed by Margot Bordelon DRA ’13. The play follows a pair of Asian-American identical-twin sisters, M and L, who attend an average Midwestern high school and strive to get into The College (which looks a little too much like Harvard…).
M and L are willing to do anything and everything in order to achieve their goals — for example, because M is better at math, she will take L’s math exams for her. And L has strategically stayed back a year to ensure minimal competition. However, when this plan fails — M is deferred early action — the sisters’ limits are tested: How desperate are they to get into The College? Are they actually willing to do anything to get in? (*SPOILER: the answer is yes. **DOUBLE SPOILER: It involves life and death.) “peerless,” as Park says, “is a comedy, until it’s not.”
In a nutshell, “peerless” is deceptively simple. The beginning scenes resemble a Disney Channel-esque high school setting, from the “P-E-E-R-L-E-S-S” cheerleader chant that opens the show, to the stereotypical high school characters: the jocks, the nerds and the pot-smoking goths; to the F-bomb used in pretty much every other sentence.
“peerless” differentiates itself, however, in the cast and their superb acting abilities. With just five actors, “peerless” does an impressive job of cultivating a sense of American high-school culture. Tiffany Villarin stands out as M, the overly chatty, high-pitched, extroverted sister. Villarin, despite her small stature, commanded the stage with her dynamic energy, and even in some of the most intense moments of the play still managed to elicit comedic relief and laughter from the audience.
But this comfortable high-school setting suddenly shatters after the annual “Hoop-Coming” dance. As M and L launch Plan B to get into The College, “peerless” becomes an experimental play that pushes to the extreme the emotions felt by students going through the college application process. Despair, rage and stress quickly escalate from dirty gossip — “He only got in because he’s 1/16 Native American!” — to fuel murder plots involving poison and arson. By intensifying the plot to such an absurd level, Park has created a play that fearlessly confronts today’s cutthroat college application process.
“peerless” also touches on underlying issues such as race, particularly the experience of Asian-Americans. In one scene, M and L dare DB — a classmate who is coincidentally the one student who got into The College early admission — to tell them apart. M says, “Are you sure you can tell us apart? We’re Asian, so it’s like, double hard for white people to tell us apart.”
Other scenes include the slur “Dirty Chink!” and a greeting of “Ni hao!” from M’s statistics teacher, even though M isn’t Chinese. These moments are intentionally blunt and command huge shock value despite the comedic scenes in which they’re placed — and they work. “peerless” lays all of these racist stereotypes out on the table and makes a bold and empowering statement about Asian-American identity. Plus, when was the last time you’ve seen a play in which the two main leads are Asian-American female actors?! (Hint: Never.)
One thing to note, however, is that “peerless” is heavily a plot-driven play, and in a matter of 90 minutes, the plot escalates quickly — perhaps too quickly — with many unexpected twists and turns. There may be moments when you will wonder what the hell is happening, and there may be moments when you feel as if you’ve missed something. (Maybe this isn’t surprising, considering Park was inspired by Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” a complex work in and of itself.)
Word of advice: Don’t bother trying to explain the plot to your friends, because it will definitely be more than a mouthful. But maybe this is for the better — it will encourage them to go see for themselves.