Of the countless adaptations of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” Jiehae Park’s “peerless” may be its quirkiest and most “woke” version yet. In early October, Mochi Mag’s NYC team — myself, Art Director Dani Kau, and staff writers Kai Xing Mun and Christina Poulin — was invited to an early performance of the Off-Broadway play at 59E59 Theaters, and we were truly in for a treat from start to finish. We laughed, we cringed, we gasped, and we (well, I) may have even shed a tear or two as the chaotic dark comedy turned into a sobering sociopolitical satire.
Written by Jiehae Park and directed by Margot Bordelon, “peerless” transports Macbeth’s fight for the Scottish throne (and eventual descent into murderous madness) to a high school in a nameless American suburb. The throne? Admission into an elite university, where only one minority student from the high school can be chosen. Macbeth and ambitious Lady Macbeth are replaced by Asian American twins, M (Sasha Diamond) and L (Shannon Tyo), who must plot desperately to ensure their future. What ensues is a biting satire of the scarcity mindset, and what happens when the cutthroat institutions built by white hegemony pits marginalized communities against each other. The play explores everything from affirmative action to fatphobia, casual racism, and the fetishization of Asian women. Whether you’re familiar with the source text or not, “peerless” stands on its own as a brilliant original production worth the watch.
“peerless” captures the complexity of issues like affirmative action and racial inequity, and their costs.
When the play opens with the twins’ rage at a “1/16 Indigenous” rival taking their spot at their dream college, you can’t help but cringe-laugh at how M and L lean into the model minority myth, even commodifying their own ethnicity and sexuality to get what they’ve always been taught to believe is success. “There can only be one,” the twins repeat robotically throughout the play, stuck in the scarcity mindset that there are finite resources and opportunities in the world.
Mochi staff Poulin says, “[It] underscores the issues with the college admissions process — such as how affirmative action policies, despite their benefits, can foster competition and resentment between the diverse groups they are meant to unite — while also highlighting the life-or-death situation (here, a literal one) in which high school students feel trapped.”
As we know, affirmative action is an especially complex and divisive topic among Asian American communities, with the argument that college admissions quotas can address discrimination against underrepresented communities, as well as the argument that these quotas fail to actually address educational inequity at the root, even among Asian American communities. In the play notes for “peerless,” the playwright clarifies these points. “When it seems like there’s only one path to safety and belonging (the unspoken qualifier: for people like you), stepping off can feel dangerous,” says Park. “Some double down on that path, others bristle and revolt, but all are — unjustly, unconsciously — measured against it.”
It’s no coincidence, then, that the witch (originally the Weird sisters in Shakespeare’s version) who seeds the paranoia within M and L, and incites the violence that sets the motions of the play forward, is a white student. Meanwhile, the other characters represent different marginalized communities: Black, Indigenous, Asian, and those with mental health and physical disabilities.
The play also poses interesting questions about who gets to decide what our identities are and whether those identities are valid. The rival student with Indigenous heritage, D (heartbreakingly played by Benny Wayne Sully, who is Sicangu Lakota), has a moving monologue explaining how he discovered his ethnic background and was accepted into his tribe. Although M and L roll their eyes and refuse to see him as anything but a white man who took their opportunity, we have to wonder, again, why anyone’s identity has to be used as a commodity in the first place. I was impressed by how Park brought on cultural consultant Vickie Ramirez, who says in the play notes, “The colonial mindset often focuses on blood quantum while ignoring other aspects of Indigenous identity. […] The most important part of the equation is community acceptance. We decide our citizens, not the federal government.”
Despite its heavy subject matter, “peerless” is written and directed so cleverly that it remains a fun watch.
It’s not easy to squeeze so many sociopolitical issues into a 90-minute play, while keeping it genuinely fun. But everything is meticulously and cleverly crafted, from the witty dialogue to the set and lighting design, choreography (yes, there is dancing), and even the poster.
“As a current graphic design student, I really appreciated the design of the poster with its bold but simple composition, and its ability to capture the disturbing plot perfectly,” says Mochi staff Kau. “The minimal use of color in the poster, set design, and costume design cleverly juxtapose the twins as very separate and different entities, one wearing primary red and the other primary yellow against a backdrop of blue, visually communicating their very different personalities.”
Additionally, the dialogue between M and L is whip-smart, with its quick banter, perfectly choreographed timing, and abundant profanities true to the nature of teenagers who don’t truly grasp the consequences of their words and actions. Despite how disturbed these anti-heroines are, their eccentricities are endearing and retorts irreverently funny. And yet, there’s pain in their voices, with L stealing the scene every time she pleads, “You and then me, no one else matters,” to persuade M to carry out their homicidal schemes. We remember, then, that these are children who have been utterly failed by adults, that these girls should have been taught, “It doesn’t have to be us versus them. We can all succeed together.” If only it were true.
All in all, you’ll leave “peerless” feeling breathless, with more questions than answers about how to address educational inequity. Poulin summarizes it best with her overall impression: “‘peerless’ races from high school comedy to mass murder at an alarming speed, leaving no room for deliberation until the final acts of violence have taken place. As someone for whom the college admissions process is still in recent memory, this play elicited more than one self-conscious laugh.”
Produced by Primary Stages, “peerless” is currently playing at 59E59 Theaters until November 6, 2022, Tuesday-Saturday at 7:00 p.m. and Saturday-Sunday at 2:00 p.m. See the full schedule and purchase tickets here.
Credits: James Leynse
Last modified: October 16, 2022