In ‘Peerless,’ the college try means toil and trouble
Once his lethal Lady had sufficiently exhorted him to the task, Macbeth proved willing to commit some pretty grievous deeds to gain and maintain the Scottish throne.
There are no official thrones in America (can someone please tell the current occupant of the White House?) but acceptance to an elite college might be seen as a kind of royal reward by some of today’s driven, overachieving high school seniors.
The twin sisters in Jiehae Park’s “Macbeth’’-inspired “Peerless,’’ now at Company One Theatre, certainly see it that way. They are not just driven and overachieving but ruthless, so much so that the sisters contemplate extreme measures against a dorky, formerly overweight classmate who stands athwart their path to “The College,’’ an unnamed but presumably Ivy League institution.
Park approaches her subject as a dramatist with a gripping story to tell, not as a polemicist, but “Peerless’’ still registers as an indictment of the deranged admissions process that our citadels of higher learning — and the rest of us — have allowed to become the norm, leading to cutthroat competition and frayed nerves all around.
In an author’s note at the beginning of her script, Park says: “This play is a comedy. Until it’s not.’’ I can’t improve on that description of “Peerless,’’ except perhaps to say that the play works on multiple levels: as ink-dark comedy; as an ingenious, spookily atmospheric psychological drama; and as a chilling parable about the soul-warping price of extreme ambition.
Company One director Steven Bogart maintains the necessary sharp edge of tension in “Peerless’’ while also sustaining an aura of mystery with elements of the supernatural. In this, Bogart gets a big assist from his creative team, who had to deal with an atypical venue: Rabb Hall in the Boston Public Library (speaking of hallowed halls of learning). Special kudos to Company One sound designer Lee Schuna, who creates effects that jolt or subtly unnerve, depending on the needs of the scene.
With a nod to the power dynamics between husband and wife in “Macbeth,’’ the siblings in “Peerless’’ are known only as M (Kim Klasner) and L (Khloe Alice Lin). At first L seems the more icily resolute of the two sisters, devoid of conscience, incapable of remorse. Klasner and Lin make an impressive team, speaking in staccato bursts and persuasively embodying sisters who can finish each other’s sentences but who are also clearly as competitive with each other as they are with everyone else.
The College is the destination for which M and L have been avidly studying, taking service trips, and generally pulling out all the stops. They even moved to an unnamed Midwestern suburb, hoping for a geographic edge, and one of them stayed back a year, hoping to leverage sibling preference. The sisters are Asian-American, and both are incredulous that a white classmate whom they see as less than mediocre was accepted to The College, while M was deferred despite “impeccable’’ grades and test scores. Wails M: “I’m a girl . . . double minority.’’
They feverishly speculate: Why him and not her? Was it because the nerdy student who got into The College, identified only as D and portrayed by James Wechsler, has a brother with cystic fibrosis? Was it because he is one-sixteenth Native American? When M’s even-tempered African-American boyfriend, identified only as BF (Kadahj Bennett), tries to talk to her, she lashes out at him (“There’s no historically Asian college I can apply to’’), then dumps him.
L spells out the situation starkly for M, saying of her rival: “He’s got your spot. He’s got your future.’’ A character named Dirty Girl (Brenna Fitzgerald, compellingly creepy) seems to know an awful lot about their future. Dirty Girl, who is essentially all three Weird Sisters from “Macbeth’’ rolled up in one trenchcoat-wearing teenager, is given to bizarre utterances and eerie prophecies; she sees the dark designs that M and L conceal beneath the fake smiles they flash in crowded school hallways.
The sisters turn those smiles on the oblivious D as they begin to ensnare him in a deadly scheme that will ultimately lead in unexpected directions. Playwright Park’s voice is so original and distinctive that you won’t constantly be thinking of the Scottish play as you watch “Peerless.’’ By the end, though, you just might find yourself thinking back to that soliloquy during which Macbeth wrestles aloud with what he calls “Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself/ And falls on th’other.’’
Play by Jiehae Park. Directed by Steven Bogart. Presented by Company One Theatre in collaboration with Boston Public Library at Rabb Hall, Boston Public Library, through May 28. Tickets: “Pay-what-you-want,” 617-292-7110, www.companyone.org