Some things work and some don’t in this drama about hyper-competitive twins in college application season | Review by Joanne Rhim Lee (Spring 2020 issue)
Peerless by Jiehae Park
Produced by Theater Mu, Gremlin Theater, St. Paul ~ January 13 through February 16, 2020)
It’s the dreaded college application season, and twin sisters M and L are anxiously awaiting a big fat acceptance packet from their dream school, and at the same time trying to banish the possibility of rejection. As they nervously chatter about it, it becomes clear that they are super-twins who excel at every academic subject, participate in lots of extracurricular activities, and are very social and popular in school, with boyfriends and backups waiting in the wings for a chance to date them.
Is it possible that the sisters are just naturally charming and good at everything, with sincere interests in music, literature, math, sports, and volunteering? Or have their lives been carefully curated for this grueling college application process?
Directed by Theater Mu’s brand-new artistic director Lily Tung Crystal and written by Jiehae Park, Peerless was presented at the Gremlin Theater in St. Paul from January 31 to February 16, 2020.
Crystal writes in the program notes that the show was inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which gives an early indication that this is not just a light and breezy work about driven high school kids, but a darker examination of issues of race and identity.
The fact that M and L are Asian American should be a footnote in their story, but here it seems to indicate that they are hyper-focused on winning the ultimate prize of attending the top university in the nation. Real-life sisters Francesca and Isabella Dawis play the twins, and one cannot resist their charms in the opening scenes. Yes, they know all the answers and are their teachers’ pets, but why should they be blamed for being smart? Why should it be harder for Asian Americans to gain acceptance into elite universities than other “minorities,” or even able-bodied white students?
It soon becomes clear that M and L are not just hyper-focused, but hyper-competitive, willing to step on anyone on their way to the top. The first indication that they have been plotting their college applications for a long time is the fact that, though they are twins, they are not in the same grade. M is a senior and L is a junior, as their first-choice college only admits one person from their high school each year, and they wanted to maximize their chances. In addition, if M is admitted the first year, the college’s legacy/sibling preference policy will help L the following year, for a win-win all around.
If this move seems strange and calculating, it is nothing compared to what they pull off during the rest of the show. The twins are shocked to learn that there are at least two other seniors who are also applying to the same top college as M. To make matters worse, these students aren’t just run-of-the-mill applicants; one of them happens to be part Native American (though the twins seriously question the validity of this claim), and the other is M’s African American boyfriend, whom she never even considered would be her competition.
Park’s dialogue is snappy and clever, and credit goes to the multi-talented Dawis sisters for pulling it off. At times they seem to retreat into a secret sibling language, finishing each other’s sentences and repeating mantras over and over, such as “You and then me,” to refer to the order of their college acceptances, or perhaps the order of their antics. They are frighteningly focused, muttering, “I want what I deserve… which is everything.”
Unfortunately, not everything works here. The set is very sparse, with only a few props which double and triple up as beds, desks, and sofas. The actors themselves move these clunky props around by themselves between scenes, and change their clothes on stage in front of the audience. This adds to the feeling that even though their lives are exhausting, the twins have boundless energy and are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their goal. However, all of this activity is also distracting to the audience; the show is 90 minutes long with no intermission, and some pauses would be useful.
The three other supporting actors do a good job of providing a contrast to the twins’ intense approach to life. As D, the twin’s classmate and competition, Neal Beckman is sweet and awkward as he tries to flirt at a school dance, in vain. As M’s boyfriend, Kenyai O’Neal gives a smooth, understated performance, and one wonders what he has in common with M. Meredith Casey has the most difficult and thankless role as Dirty Girl, the class burnout who seems to be onto M and L’s scheming ways. She lunges and screeches, freaking out her classmates, as well as the audience.
One of M and L’s oft-repeated mantras is “things have a way of working themselves out,” but that doesn’t mean they will be satisfied with whatever hand fate deals them. After they receive some bad news in the form of a thin envelope, their true characters come out when they call a mentally-disabled character a “retard” and make fun of a Native American chief. They use various props as weapons, both literal and figurative. These are not innocent cute girls in matching preppy sweaters, but truly awful people.
A common stereotype of Asian American college-bound students is that they are robots who lack true passion in any real interests, and are also bitterly resentful of other minorities or special needs groups who may have an advantage in the admissions process. Though it seems as though Park is reinforcing this stereotype here, director Lily Tung Crystal addressed this question in the talkback after the show by saying that she thought Asians were breaking the stereotype of the “quiet, obedient, not-making waves” Asian example of excellence.
Certainly, it’s important to be exposed to a wide variety of characters of a particular ethnicity, so as not to pigeon-hole certain groups. But with a cast of only five actors, two of whom are Asian American cut-throat college-bound twins who repeat their phrases like robots and try to sabotage their competition, it would have been nice to have other Asian American alternative portrayals as well.