Review of peerless

By Brooks Appelbaum

Head-splitting explosions, flashing lights, speeding dialogue, and twisty plot turns all but overwhelm the terrific acting in Yale Repertory Theatre’s world premiere of Jiehae Park’s peerless, running through December 19th. peerless, directed at a relentless pace by Margot Bordelon, and loosely based on characters from Macbeth, engages all these effects (and more) to make sure we understand one salient fact: getting into a good college is murder.

That this fact has become a truism in our desperate culture appears to be beside the point in Park’s play and Bordelon’s vision. Both are clearly having fun dramatizing how far two Asian American twins, L and M, will go in order to achieve admission to the ivy-covered school of their dreams. However, the technical furor surrounding Park’s dramaturgically thin piece obscures all that needs to be said about a genuinely dangerous obsession. Satire can certainly send a powerful message; here, though, the satire is more flippant than biting, and the sound and fury add no real depth.

It’s telling that the most disturbing and thought-provoking episode in peerless involves one actor in the throes of death, no special effects used, or needed. Though the actors can only add so much to the evening’s glib tone, every actor is superb, and their mesmerizing work is what you’ll remember. As L, Theresa Avia Lim (last seen locally at Long Wharf Theatre in 4000 Miles) makes a complex, frightening, and convincingly driven high school student. Short of stature and furious of facial expression, L is an original. As her twin, M, Tiffany Villarin’s hauteur melts into kindness or shifts into wide-eyed disbelief or horror in a flash; Villarin is mercurial.

Caroline Neff plays one of the script’s most fascinating characters, Dirty Girl. (Neff doubles later in a brief cameo that showcases her range.) Clad in Goth-like rags, with blond-black dreadlocks, Neff’s Dirty Girl moves like a serpent and maintains a mysterious and menacing presence. JD Taylor, as D and DB, gives marvelously funny, heartbreaking performances in both roles, and as D, his physical skill feels like a special effect in itself. Finally, Christopher Livingston’s BF brings a pleasing, and necessary, note of natural simplicity to the proceedings. BF’s gentle humor and teenage shrug in the midst of the surrounding chaos make him a welcome presence whenever he appears.

Shawn Boyle has designed the effective projections, which allow the play to spin from scene to scene. Scenic designer Christopher Thompson’s sets are stark and, in some cases, stunning. Oliver Wason has not only lit the play beautifully, but also created the lighting effects that will either impress you or leave you feeling unpleasantly blinded. Sound designer Sinan Refik Zafar’s design is as deafening and disorienting as director Bordelon might wish, and the original music adds to the pounding music of the dialogue. Sydney Gallas has designed pitch-perfect costumes. Movement Director Fay Simpson and Vocal Coach Walton Wilson have clearly guided the actors toward their impressive kinesthetic and vocal intensity.

Though Park says, in an interview, that adhering to Macbeth’s characters too closely would be “way less fun,” the most enjoyable element of peerless, besides the excellent acting, comes from seeing who, in these bland high school halls, represents which character in Shakespeare’s Scottish Play. Usually, putting oneself up against Shakespeare in any respect is a dangerous move for a playwright: one longs for the actual verse. Macbeth, though, withstands adapting and updating better than most, despite the absence of remarkable language, and had Park dealt differently with college-bound hysteria, Macbeth would be a terrific match. Park clearly has imagination to burn and a strong ear for dialogue. One hopes that in the future she will treat her subjects more ambitiously, reveal fresh ideas, and plumb greater emotional depths.

peerless runs through December 19. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to www.yalerep.org

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