Macbeth meets Heathers in Peerless
Jiehae Park’s Peerless is an irresistibly dark comedy about two twin sisters, high school seniors who will do anything—including commit murder—to get into the college of their dreams.
Their long-gestating plan goes back to their childhood, including one sister, L, deliberately getting left back a year so that once the other sister, M, was granted admission, L would be given familial preference. When M is, instead, waitlisted, their years-long plan seems to have all been for naught. They set their sights on D, an awkward boy who actually was admitted to “the college.” Their careful research has told them that, usually, if something tragic (like death) should prevent a student from enrolling, “the college” will sometimes pluck someone from their school off the waiting list.
Park says that although she didn’t begin writing Peerless with a clear theme in mind, the finished product touches on issues that have always interested her, such as identity politics, the spiritual cost of success, and her own uneasy relationship to the idea of ambition.
“The structures that we create reinforce a system of values, whether those values are explicitly or implicitly stated,” Park said. “And with school admissions, it’s happening at earlier and earlier ages. What kinds of values are we instilling, consciously or not, in our young people? What’s our responsibility, or complicity, as a society in the structures that shape these values?”
“I think the joy of the play is that it uses comedy to ask questions about the assumptions we have about ourselves and others,” Park added. “It’s a satire—people say and do some truly terrible things in it—and with satire, there’s always the danger that someone will take away the exact opposite of what was intended. But I think comedy, and seeing things in exaggerated relief, allows us to ask tough questions in a way that raises less defensiveness than direct assault.”
Peerless is a co-production between Company One and the Boston Public Library, and it will be the first theatrical production to play the newly refurbished Rabb Hall. Each and every performance is pay-what-you-want, which means that there’s no reason not to see it.
Steven Bogart, whose production of Dry Land at Company One was one of the highlights of last season, directs. Here, Bogart shares his thoughts on the play.
What was your first reaction to Peerless when you read it?
I thought it was very funny, and then I kind of got sucked into the dark undertones of the piece that kept emerging as it moved on. And of course, all the Macbeth references were pretty fascinating.
It’s easy, when you’re reading the play, to see how it could become too cartoonish on stage. What is your approach to it?
Even though the first half of the play is very funny, it’s not farcical, and we’re not playing it that way. Certainly, we have to deliver the comedy in it, but we have to trust the text because the text is funny. For me, it’s about the actors playing the truth of the characters and let the comedy take care of itself.
Have you had any conversations with Jiehae about her intentions with this play?
No, I haven’t. She says in the script, “It’s funny until it’s not,” and that’s really true. I think it would be dangerous to push the comedy. We’re trying to be truthful and as real as possible and allow the comedy to come from the juxtaposition of language and rhythms and things rather than try to be funny.
Do you think that, in some ways, Peerless takes a look at the ways that Asian students are often stereotyped, in terms of striving to be the best at everything?
Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s one of the points that she’s making. There’s always different types of stereotypes about Asian parents and Asian teenagers who are under pressure to get perfect SAT scores and perfect GPAs and be involved in every after-school activity, but I also think that’s true with a lot of affluent school systems, in general, with students that feel that kind of pressure to get into the best colleges and have to get the best grades. She’s certainly playing around the edges of stereotyping Asians, as well. I think that’s there, but it’s not pounding, knocking you over the head with it.
It’s interesting that there are no adults in the play.
Yeah, I know. You don’t see them. The teenagers have to navigate all these very challenging and emotionally difficult situations without adults in their lives or without going to the adults. It’s very interesting. I don’t think it’s unusual for a lot of teenagers to try to not talk to their parents about things, but it would be good if they could.
It’s kind of perfect that you’re doing this play at the Boston Public Library. The space looks like a lecture hall, almost.
Yeah, absolutely. When I first went into the space I felt like this could be a school somewhere.
I think it’s so awesome that every performance is pay-what-you-can.
Yeah, that’s incredible. I think that’s partly because, the library, everything they do is free, so I think Company One tried to do the best they could to make everything as close to free as possible. It’s great.
PEERLESS. 4.27–5.27 AT COMPANY ONE THEATRE IN COLLABORATION WITH THE BOSTON PUBLIC LIBRARY, 700 BOYLSTON ST., BOSTON. COMPANYONE.ORG
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.