Theater Mu's Peerless at the Gremlin Theatre

Photo by Rich Ryan

Not my first visit to the Gremlin Theatre, I saw Spring Awakening there last year, a production that was plagued by microphone malfunctions. However, this was my first Theater Mu production and I’m happy to report there were no technical issues. I’m also thrilled to say that the hype I’d heard from friends about Theater Mu were true. Peerless is a thrilling piece of theater, enormously entertaining on the surface with a strong vein of thought provoking commentary just underneath. A solid script that is brought to life by a talented cast.

Peerless by Jiehae Park is inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth but set in High School. In the place of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth we have M and L, Asian American twins, whose ambition is not to become ruler but to get into “The College”. Historically, there’s one affirmative action spot given and M and L have been plotting to get it their entire lives. L was purposely held back a year so that M could get the spot. L would then have the edge the next year as there is a preference given to siblings as well. As the play opens the spot they assumed was going to be M’s is awarded to D who becomes the stand in for Duncan and will be the target of the ambitious sisters. Dirty Girl, an apparently mentally disturbed fellow student, steps in for the three witches prophesying that M will get into “The College” and her little dog too. That last line, a nice touch in making the connection between Dirty Girl and the witches, bringing to mind the Wicked Witch of the West, and also coming into play later, leading to a second target for the twins. The twins progress throughout the play with their ambition driving them to more and more despicable acts. The play is a black comedy that slowly turns darker and darker.

The twins played by real life sisters Francesca and Isabella Dawis as M and L are simply amazing. The dialogue between the two is so rapid fire, almost overlapping, but not. They perfectly time their lines to butt right up to each others, as if they are finishing each other’s thoughts. The make the timing of those exchanges look easy but I assure you it isn’t. Francesca’s M is the more hesitant of the two characters goaded on by L, as such her character is more sympathetic and we get to see a slightly softer side which she plays wonderfully as well. Isabella’s L is the more straightforwardly manipulative one and as such she is able to go full on in that mode, deliciously jumping from one tact to another always with her end goal in sight. Neal Beckman has the plum role of D and the more shadowy role of D’s brother. Beckman gives a performance that brings an ultra nerdy and socially awkward teenager to full life. It’s a highly characterized role that is responsible for most of the all out laughs of which there are many. He takes a character that would be annoying to anyone in M and L’s position and makes him completely endearing to us, the audience. Even M finds empathy for him and struggles with their plans, that conversion made believable by the skill of Beckman’s performance finding the balance between what he is meant to represent and who his character is inside, showing us all of it. Completing the the cast is Meredith Casey as Dirty Girl and Kenyai O’Neal as the Boyfriend, both rounding out the cast nicely with strong work.

Peerless is directed by Theater Mu’s Artistic Director Lily Tung Crystal. She has created a fast paced and inventive production, never sacrificing the humor and entertainment of the play, but also shining a light on the issues underneath. As a white male, you’d think I’d be the perfect audience for a theater company devoted to spotlighting diversity, and a play that addresses the opportunities historically my demographic takes for granted. It’s a great play for a privileged class to see, because while it’s a comedy there are a lot of messages that can be seen through the laughs. But it’s also a play that spotlights the ways in which other communities should be working together, not against each other. The problem at the core of the play is not who should get the one spot, but that there is only one spot. There is a lot more to unpack there, but essentially this is a play that we can all learn something from. It’s also really funny, entertaining, thrilling, and shocking. That’s some accomplishment.

Other highlights of the production were the Scenic Design by Joe Stanley. The Gremlin Theatre is basically a black box, there is not a lot of options in terms of bringing sets on and off and as such productions need to be economical in their design. Stanley has created a set whose back wall can rotate creating a new backdrop for which ever location they are at. In the school halls we have a row of lockers, when they are in the Gym there is a basketball hoop, at “The College” we have the school banner. Desks, couches, and other props are whisked on and off stage through panels that open either side of the rotating wall. Two rectangular boxes stand in for beds, benches, a TV stand, with props stored inside, making the transitions from scene to scene as quick and seamless as possible. The Lighting Design by Karin Olson and the Sound Design by Kevin Springer are both very effective many times working in unison to create effects. Examples being a rat running across the floor, cars racing past on the street and an explosion.

Peerless runs through February 16th for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.theatermu.org/