PITTSFIELD — Born from a tragedy comes a contemporary dark comedy to Barrington Stage Company's St. Germain Stage.
Louisa Proske ("Engagements") returns to BSC to direct Jiehae Park's "peerless," in which the driving, insatiable force of ambition from Shakespeare's "Macbeth" is unleashed within the halls of a Midwestern high school, during college admissions season.
Proske came across the work when she and Park, an Amherst College graduate, were both attending the 2014 Soho Rep. Writer/Director Lab. Though the two weren't paired together, Proske said she watched with envy as Park emerged with the crux of her new work after spending four days at an artists' retreat.
In an interview with the Soho Rep, Park said it was a New York Times article, "Is Harvard Unfair to Asian-Americans?" forwarded to her from a colleague, that stoked the writer's fire within her.
The article exposes how students, in this case, Asian-Americans, vying for coveted Ivy League admissions are vetted not only by grades, but by extracurricular activities, socioeconomic background, status and race. Op-ed columnist Yascha Mounk writes, "Admission to elite colleges is a scarce good. Deciding who gets an offer inescapably involves trade-offs among competing values. Do we make excellence the only criterion — and, if so, excellence in what?"
Park herself is Korean-American, and the casting in "peerless" calls for two actresses to portray Asian-American twins simply named, M and L, along with the roles of BF, and dually portrayed roles of D/D's Brother and Dirty Girl/Preppy Girl — all various outcasts and minorities in their own rights, and all navigating the politics and pains of getting into college.
Once a benign rite of passage in socioeconomic and intellectual advancement, the admissions process has become a blood sport — one that aims to be precisely and lyrically dramatized in this production, which made its critically acclaimed 2015 world premiere at the Yale Repertory Theatre.
"Casting this was a challenge because it calls for two actors who can portray in this very stylized production identical twins who are of high school age; who can handle spitfire-fast language; have Shakespearean training and are skilled storytellers," said Proske. "We got very lucky."
Making their Barrington Stage debuts are Sasha Diamond as M and Laura Sohn as L, both East Coast-raised Asian-American millennials, who say they can relate to the pressures inherent to collegiate success.
Diamond, 26, graduated from the Townsend Harris High School at Queens College, a rigorous public magnet high school for the humanities that prepped her for the college admissions competition. She said, "The application process for college gets more and more stressful for students each year, it seems."
Sohn, 21, said she's "very aware of the culture of college acceptance," and described how her "traditional" Korean parents wanted her to go to "top-notch" schools, like the University of Southern California or New York University.
"But in the end, it was ultimately my choice," said Sohn, who graduated this year as a member of the Rutgers Actor Presentation, the first company of BFA and MFA graduates to complete a new three-and-a-half-year acting program.
In "peerless," Proske said she has coached Diamond and Sohn to examine how M and L "connect with the tenderness and love for each other" as sisters while journeying through a plot and dialogue of "unbelievably biting satire that makes them caustic."
Together, despite meticulously calculating each aspect of their lives and demographics that would groom them to be highly desirable candidates for top colleges, the twins find themselves facing competition and failure to easily secure coveted acceptance letters. So begins a descent into fear and the development of a by-any-means-necessary strategy for success.
"It's symbolic of how today's college aspirations manipulate a parent's wish for the success of their child into an insane sport of how to bolster up their kid's college resume, breeding a culture of fear and anxiety and an acute level of stress," Proske said.
Diamond and Sohn lauded their fellow cast members, Ethan Dubin (D/D's Brother), Ronald Alexander Peet (BF), and Adina Verson (Dirty Girl/Preppy Girl), for bringing color and contrast to their characters and maintaining what they and Proske called "the music" of the piece.
Proske said the design team, which includes John McDermott (sets), Elivia Bovenzi (costumes), Oliver Wason (lights), Jeremy Bloom (sound), and stage manager Marjorie Wood work together to create "moving panels that accentuate the staccato rhythm of language" that represent the intensity of teenagers and high school.
And since any self-respecting Shakespearean-styled drama wouldn't be complete without an intense action scene, Proske enlisted Shakespeare & Company alumnus, Ryan Winkles, to help choreograph, "an awesome fight."
Overall, Sohn said "peerless" for her is "more of a mental exercise" that pushes her beyond the frameworks of her classical training. Diamond said she hopes she and her colleagues can arouse audiences in a similar fashion. "You have to be an active member of this story," she said. "And hopefully, you'll leave it feeling a little bit different ... from the experience."
What: "peerless" by Jiehae Park. Directed by Louisa Proske
Who: Barrington Stage Company
Where: St. Germain Stage, Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, 36 Linden St., Pittsfield
When: Now through Aug. 6 (press opening 3 p.m. Sunday). Evenings — Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30. Matinees — Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at 3 p.m. (no matinee this Saturday)
How: 413-236-8888; barringtonstageco.org; directly at Barrington Stage box office — 30 Union St. (Boyd-Quinson Mainstage)
Of special note
• "Conversations With ...": Jiehae Park — "The Pressure Cooker Young People Face in Order to Get into College." Free; reservations suggested. Sunday. 1 p.m. St. Germain Stage
• Talkbacks with the cast: July 27; Aug. 3, following the 7:30 p.m. performances