Theatre Review: “Peerless” at ArtsWest
By Lindsay Peyton
When walking into a Shakespearean tragedy, audiences know to expect certain things.
They can anticipate revenge and a hero with a fatal flaw. And they know, most certainly, almost everyone in the cast will be dead by the end, including the hero.
It’s comforting in a way to know how things will go. You are able to prepare for the fact the hero will meet his demise and therefore not grow too attached. You know that your favorite characters, perhaps the flamboyant Mercutio or the noble Ophelia, will also find no mercy from the poet’s pen. You can also rest assured that the villains will be eliminated as well.
It’s a neat and final closing to the play. It offers a moral, the fall from grace based on the hero’s flaw, but it also speaks to the complexity of life, the good contrasted with the bad, as Macbeth’s witches say, “Fair is foul and fouls is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air.” After all, both heroes and villains ultimately pass in real life anyway.
But what would happen if the hero didn’t die in the play? It wouldn’t be so tidy. It would leave the audience feeling that the whole charade could happen again, that the problem is bigger than just the hero’s personality, that an issue may be far more complex.
That’s part of the unsettling feeling that remains after seeing Jiehae Park’s “Peerless,” now running at ArtsWest Playhouse and Gallery, 4711 California Ave SW, through Feb. 11.
This modern-day twist on Macbeth takes place at a high school. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are replaced by two twin sisters, both flawed by insurmountable ambition. Instead of a group of witches with foreboding prophecies, in “Peerless,” there’s a Goth girl with psychic powers, played by Erin Bednarz.
The Asian-American twins, simply named M, played by Corinne Magin, and L, played by Maile Wong, are vying for the only affirmative action spot at “The College.” The position instead goes to D, played by Christopher Qulici, a white male colleague who is 1/16th Native American.
A murderous rampage ensues, just like Macbeth on his journey to take the throne. “Peerless,” however, is almost more reminiscent of “Heathers,” that brilliant, dark comedy from the late 1980s featuring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, because this play is funny – really, very funny, while at the same time, super disturbing.
The most loveable character was the scene-stealing D, who has no father, a mother perpetually stuck at work and a brother struggling with cystic fibrosis. He raps incessantly, while chiding himself for talking too much, about his new lease on life.
“I could die happy tonight because I conquered my fear,” he says at one point.
In another scene he mentions a quote, whose source he does not know, “Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.” The quote turns out to be equally evasive in real life, mostly attributed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe but actually written by W. H. Murray.
The line is part of D’s discussion of how important it was for him to reclaim his life. For the sisters, however, the quote is almost a call to sinister duty.
M and L are willing to do whatever it takes to get into college. On one hand, “Peerless” seems to mock of the mad scramble to go to the best Ivy League schools. On another, it sparks a conversation about affirmative action on college campuses, as well as race and identity issues in general.
In a broader sense, the play evokes bigger topics, like ambition, family, guilt, purpose, how to face trials and how to judge friendship. But the writing is light, edgy, playful and fun. It’s part thriller, part comedy and anything but heavy or boring.
There’s no intermission and the set is minimalist, but there’s enough action, drama and laughs to carry you to the end and leave you wanting more, even if you catch yourself covering your eyes and peeking through your fingers at parts.
ArtsWest’s production also stars Jonathan Keyes as “BF” and features Madison Silva as stage manager, Emily Leong as lighting designer, Isabella Price as costumer designer, Reiko Huffman as scenic designer, Andrea Spraycar as properties manager and Stephon Dorsey as sound designer.
The play is directed by Sara Porkalob, and Karina Garcia serves as assistant director.
For tickets and more information, www.artswest.org