As the celebrated former head of the drama program at Lexington High School, director Steven Bogart will never forget “The Wall of Shame” in the school cafeteria. It may sound like some kind of horrible hazing ritual, but rather it’s where students would post letters from colleges they’ve been spurned by — a kind of mass group therapy session, “a way of dealing with the feeling of rejection,” Bogart says, during what can be a stressful and fraught time.
“Starting junior year, the pressure to get into college is enormous. It can be really difficult on students psychologically,” says Bogart, who retired from Lexington High in 2011. “Some kids find a way to survive that, and some kids fall apart.”
Falling apart is exactly what twin sisters L and M, the maniacally-driven high-school overachievers at the center of Jiehae Park’s obsidian-black comedy “Peerless,” have strenuously spent four years avoiding at all costs. Bogart is directing the play, in a collaboration between Company One Theatre and the Boston Public Library, at the Copley Square branch beginning Thursday and running through May 28.
The tightly wound twins, who dress in matching outfits and possess a nasty yet well-concealed cruel streak that would make Mean Girl Regina George run for the hills, have crafted themselves into the ideal applicants — with perfect GPAs and just the right mix of extracurriculars — to impress admissions officers at their dream school.
For years, the girls, with their fake frozen smiles, have carefully plotted their ascension to The College, an Ivy League-style institution with scarce spots available for coveted early decision. The Asian-American sisters have strategized about race and gender and even moved to a small Midwestern town with few minority students to give themselves an edge in “geographic diversity.”
After they learn that a nerdy male student, who has a brother with cystic fibrosis and distant Native American heritage, received early admission to The College, the twins realize their assumed spots are now in jeopardy and they begin to plot his demise.
“It’s wildly funny and irreverent, until suddenly it’s very dark and dangerous,” says Company One artistic director Shawn LaCount. “[The play] explores the general horror show that high school can be for a young person. It brings a lot of humor, a lot of humanity, and a lot of heart, and then it all goes awry. It reminds me of the [1989 Winona Ryder-Christian Slater] movie ‘Heathers’ in many ways. It gets crazy and absurd and murderous and bloody in a way that really kind of makes you wonder if you should be laughing, which I love.”
Park, a Korean-American playwright, drew her inspiration from “Macbeth,” riffing on plot points in Shakespeare’s story of a Scottish general and his Machiavellian wife who scheme to take down the reigning monarch so Macbeth can assume the throne himself.
The moody goth character, Dirty Girl, who begins issuing portentous prophesies about M’s prospects of admission, is a one-woman embodiment of the trio of witches in “Macbeth,” and her predictions influence the twins’ actions. L and M represent Macbeth and his scheming lady love, and they seem to shift back and forth in those roles at different points in the story. Meanwhile, strange hallucinations and haunting sounds abound throughout the play.
“The guilt and paranoia starts eating away at L and M and then starts affecting their behavior,” Bogart says, before a recent rehearsal at the Boston Center for the Arts. “It’s interesting to see how the power dynamic between the two twins keeps shifting.”
Park has cited the infamous real-life Welsh twins, June and Jennifer Gibbons, as touchstones for L and M and their inseparable bond. Their morbid codependence, silent insularity, secret shorthand language, and crime spree was chronicled in Marjorie Wallace’s 1986 book “The Silent Twins.”
“They always moved in synch with each other,” says Kim Klasner, who plays M opposite Khloe Alice Lin’s L. “So when we were preparing, before we even started rehearsals with the rest of the cast, we did these workshops where we tried to mirror each other to get on the same wavelength — playing word association games, doing improv, storytelling, drawing pictures, things like that.”
Still, the Gibbons twins had a love-hate relationship that became untenable, and before they were released from a mental institution, they had determined that one of them had to die in order for the other to live. “They were like two stars being gravitationally pulled towards each other,” says Lin. “They want to separate but they cannot, because the gravitational force between them is just too great. The love and the codependency was so deep.”
Company One’s collaboration with the BPL is part of “All the City’s a Stage,” the library’s commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. To make the project jibe with the library’s mission of offering free programming, Company One fund-raised around the idea of doing every performance in a “pay what you want” model. While the company has offered occasional nights of “pay what you want” before, LaCount says it’s “the first time we’ve really invested in this idea of free or subsidized ticketing for an entire run.”
‘We did these workshops where we tried to mirror each other to get on the same wavelength.’
“It’s a really great opportunity to be at a place like the Boston Public Library that has so much foot traffic and is such a major institution in the city,” LaCount says. “And we’ve got a 300-seat house there, so we have a great opportunity to reach a lot of folks. We’re also offering Friday morning matinees for high school groups.”
Additionally, the BPL collaboration extends Company One’s vision to branch out beyond the troupe’s longtime home at the Boston Center for the Arts into different parts of the city. Still, a library lecture hall with no fly system, no lighting grid, and no backstage presented a unique challenge for a fast-paced show with a myriad of scene and costume changes.
Bogart and his team, including set designer JiYoung Han, came up with a “unit set” — made up of jagged shapes flanked by enormous pillars — that can work on a stage that’s extremely long but has little depth. The show will also utilize extensive projections to create scene changes and even a little stage magic, because supernatural forces are at work in the story.
In a society that puts such a premium on competition, achievement, and success, Bogart says the pressure-cooker environment around college admissions can be “an inescapable situation” for high school students. Still, he cautions, “There is an obsession with this stuff and an unhealthiness about it, and I think this play captures that and captures what it costs students psychologically and emotionally.”
Produced by Company One Theatre, in collaboration with the Boston Public Library, April 27-May 28. At Rabb Hall, Central Library, Copley Square. Tickets are pay what you want; www.companyone.orgChristopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.