Theater: Dark Humor

‘Peerless’: Smart satire, lost in translation

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In Marin Theatre Company’s production of ‘peerless,’ twin sisters “M” and “L” will do whatever it takes to succeed. Photo by Kevin Berne.

By Charles Brousse

A good way to learn about what an opening night audience really thinks about the play they’ve just seen is to hang out around the post-performance refreshments table that many theaters offer, and listen to the comments. Admittedly, these are first impressions and they may be revised later as reflection and reading reviews like this one lead to different conclusions. But, as unfiltered first impressions, they have their value.

What I heard from audience members in the lobby after the opening of peerless, Jiehae Park’s “dark comedy,” at the Marin Theatre Company (MTC) last week was a mixture of confusion about the play’s meaning, mingled with respect for the production’s quality.

Indeed, peerless is difficult to pin down. While advertised as a comedy, what’s funny about a play that the author says was inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a bloody tale of pathological ambition? Park’s story revolves around a pair of attractive and talented identical twin girls of Asian descent, named only “M” and “L” (a somewhat simplistic allusion to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth). To give them a leg up on today’s fierce competition for admission into a top-ranked university when they finish high school, their parents move to the suburbs of an unnamed Midwestern town so that they can take advantage of these elite institutions’ desire for “geographical diversity.” Prodded by the pressures to excel that most college-bound students now confront, both girls compile an excellent academic record and do all of the other “right” things that are required. But when the letters for early acceptance arrive, only one—L—is selected.

This sets up a quandary. By now, the two are closely bonded, making separation unacceptable. Hardened by the challenges they have had to overcome—including racial taunts from their schoolmates—they resolve to do whatever is necessary to secure a slot for M, even if it involves deception, cheating and murder. As the situation spins out of control, you get the impression that L and M—egged on by a character named Dirty Girl, who foretells a bright future (as the weird sisters do for the obsessively ambitious couple in Macbeth)—gradually succumb to a kind of self-destructive madness.

A comedy? No. Confusing? Absolutely. Hearing some of the audience members raise doubts about the play while praising the production, I was ready to join the chorus when it struck me that it might be useful to read the script. Lo and behold, I discovered that those first impressions were totally wrong. On paper, peerless is a brilliantly written satire of the manic atmosphere that today’s teenagers both endure and help to create as they claw their way toward the shining goal of recognition by the academic establishment and society that they are special human beings, destined to escape the hardships and disdain faced by their less fortunate comrades. Some of the dialogue between M and L reads like classic vaudeville riffs in which the comics exchange hats instead of words. Even the most gruesome moments—for example, the killing of poor “D” (the twins’ nerdy schoolmate, author Park’s substitute for Duncan in Macbeth)—have their elements of dark humor.

So, why didn’t all of this come across at MTC, especially given the fact that the acting ensemble (Rinabeth Apostol, Tiffany Villarin, Jeremy Kahn, Rosie Hallett and Cameron Matthews) and  the technical staff—especially designers Kate Noll (set) and Heather Basarab (lighting) are first-rate? The answer lies in two words: Pacing and diction. With its unfinished exchanges and repetitions, in which one character fills in the blanks for another, and the plot’s rapid shifts, it’s absolutely essential that the audience understand what is going on. Too often, this did not happen at MTC. Should the deficiency be laid at the feet of director Margot Bordelon, who has a long and successful history with the play? Was there too much of an emphasis on speed of delivery and physical movement? Hard to say. All I know is that what I could make out on stage had nowhere near the rich content—and humor!—of the script that I read.

NOW PLAYING: Peerless runs through April 2 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley; 415/388-5208; marintheatre.org.

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