Anyone who has shepherded kids through the college application process knows all too well how fraught it can be. Agonizing over personal essay topics, compiling an extra-curriculars list along with grinding through every AP class possible to gain that extra advantage. But just how far will someone go to get into a particular school?
Jiehae Park’s cleverly conceived play, peerless (which premiered at Yale Rep in 2015), pushes this point to its farthest limit, and perhaps even a bit beyond. Think Macbeth recreated in a high school setting, so yes, full of plotting vengeance that leads to tragedy. As directed by Katy Koop for Bulldog Ensemble Theater, this approximately 90-minute production is a dark portrayal of obsessive teen behavior.
Asian-American twins “L” (Sarah Koop) and “M” (Pimpila Violette) have sacrificed much in hopes of admittance to “The College,” including moving to an obscure town (check the geographic diversity box) and one twin repeating a year so she can apply as a legacy preference after her sister. But their plan is foiled by a white boy with Native American credentials. Rumor has it that if something happens to the initially accepted student, another takes the spot. A plan is conceived to take back what they believe has been taken from them.
Dressed in matching outfits except for the color of their backpacks, these sisters finish each other’s sentences and even anticipate what the other will say. Their opening rapid-fire dialogue is amusing and establishes the close relationship of the twins as well as their individuality. Both actors get the timing and delivery of the banter as well as convey that familiar sullen teen attitude.
Park thickens the plot with her own version of the weird sisters offering predictions wrapped in riddles: Dirty Girl. Ella Mock offers an especially creepy portrayal of a slothful girl who seems quite aware of the sisters’ plans despite her laissez-faire attitude. Added to the mix is the African-American boyfriend of M, an engaging Foye D. Thornton III, and the nerdy Caucasian classmate, D, played with great energetic awkwardness by Samual Brown, who the twins must now eliminate.
Since the drama is based on the escalating ruthless behavior of the sisters, commenting further on the plot would spoil some of the effects that Park is attempting to deliver. But despite the growing realization of where events are headed, much of this production felt disjointed and uneven, chipping away at some much needed dramatic tension. Set changes were clunky and seemed unnecessarily long, slowing down the pace of the play. At certain points, the sound design was too loud and even somewhat confusing.
This play interrogates a wide range of issues from challenging stereotypes to the craziness surrounding college admissions, which is part of the problem. It’s a surface level scratching of various topics with a layer of desperate behavior that misses the mark.
The Bulldog Ensemble Theater production of Peerless runs through May 29. For more information visit https://www.bulldogdurham.org/peerless.