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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review

Why is everyone oppressing me today? — M
(l-r): Sasha Diamond (M) and Laura Sohn (L) (photo credit: Justin Allen)
A brilliant new play at Barrington Stage Company's St. Germain Stage, Peerless is exactly the stuff that young audiences and their parents can identify with — the college admission process.

Playwright Jihae Park has capitalized on a topic with which she and other young adults are quite familiar. As a graduate of Amherst College it is obvious that this young playwright has her ear to the ground and speaks from the experience of her generation — over-achieving kids and parents obsessed by perfect grade point averages and SAT scores, extra-curricular activities that no normal human could fulfill and heart-tugging essays designed to play on the emotions of the most hardened admissions officer.

There are no adults in this universe. The kids have internalized the external pressures and competeitive instincts. Asian twin sisters, M and L, are the focus of this incredibly fast-moving story. They end each other's sentences and seem to vibrate with the same intensity as they think and speak as one organism. Their rhythmically staccato delivery adds to the frenzy of their mania.

The story opens with the portentous dropping of a large packet from the sky. It's the coveted college admission acceptance package that has the top-ranked students of this small midwestern high school atwitter.

M and L have left nothing to chance. Even attendance at this school is calculated to win them a place at the perfect unnamed college. Though the same age, M is the front runner while L has deferred to the sisters' plan that she will wait a year and enter as a legacy sibling. These young women have every angle covered right down to the adorable matching outfits and flirty mannerisms which ingratiate them into their teachers' good graces. They smile coquettishly at anyone who can help them while verbalizing the most monstrous plans.

Park has loosely adapted Shakespeare's Macbeth as the underlying theme. Lines from the play flash by in the mouths of the seemingly innocent girls. Ethereal knocking, bell tolling and crows cawing are heard during timely moments. As the playwright says, "It is a comedy until it isn't."

Zany and politically incorrect, the girls and their friends verbalize all sorts of lines about ethnicity and stereo-typical behavior which make us wince as they calculate their chances by admission's quotas. Unfortunately the Caucasian nerd with one sixteenth Native American ancestry emerges as the front runner, followed by the African-American boy friend, so the furious M and L decide to take matters into their own hands. As in Macbeth, these archetypical characters are involved in a whirlwind of poisoning, stabbing, and ghostly visions. It could be upseting except for the logical clarity with which the girls rationalize their actions. There is even a "Dirty Girl" witch-like student (Adina Verson is appropriately loathsome as a dread-locked outsider) who utters prescient prophecies which feed the girls' sense of entitlement. The characters' conversations reveal the cynicism of contemporary society where no angle is left unexplored in order to achieve one's goals.

M and L, played by Sasha Diamond and Laura Sohn, are bitingly funny and eerily menacing with such ferocity that we barely breathe as they plot, smile, plan and play. Their agility and timing is impeccable, especially in a fight scene choreographed by Ryan Winkles. No one could possibly suspect these little charmers, especially dressed in their school girl primness and dance finery designed by Elivia Bovenzi.

Ethan Dubin as the hapless, klutz who is allergic to tree nuts is the pathetic unsuspetctng victim of the girls' Hoopcoming Dance plot. Ronald Alexander Peet as the sacrificial boy friend adds that perfect teen-aged cluelessness as a foil to the girls' fixation.

The scenic design by John McDermott moves with the same agility as the actors in rapid scene changes. Lighting by Oliver Wason lends tension to the frenetic activity. Director Louisa Proske propels the action so that the play whizzes past without an intermission. The sound designer Jereny S. Bloom adds wonderful music and aural nuances.

All of the theatrical elements combine seamlessly to serve this wonderful short and extremely tight show. It premiered in 2015 at Yale Rep and its message is hip and insightful.

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Peerless by Jihae Park
Directed by Louisa Proske
Cast: Adina Verson (Dirty Girl/Preppy Girl) Laura Sohn (L) Sasha Diamond (M) Ronald Alexander Peet (BF) Ethan Dubin (D/D’s Brother)
Scene design: John McDermott
Lighting design: Oliver Wason
Costume design: Elivia Bovenzi
Sound design: Jeremy S. Bloom
Stage Manager: Marjorie M. Wood
Fight Choreographer: Ryan Winkles
Running Time: 85 minutes, no intermission
Barrington Stage Company, St. Germain Stage, Linden St., Pittsfield, MA
From 7/21/16; opening 7/24/16; closing 8/6/16. 
Reviewed by Gloria Miller at July 24 performance

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