PITTSFIELD — The good news and the bad news about playwright Jiehae Park is that she goes to an extreme to make a point in her play, "peerless," which opened over the weekend at Barrington Stage Company's St. Germain Stage.
Inspired by a New York Times article about how Asian-American students competing for coveted places in Ivy League colleges — specifically Harvard — are vetted not only for academic and extracurricular accomplishment, but also class, economic standing and race, Park has drawn from William Shakespeare's "Macbeth" and unleashed a fast and furious tale about the no-holds-barred extremes to which a set of twin Asian-American sisters, named M and L, will go to get into the college of their choice.
Park has designed "peerless" as a theatrical genre-bending piece and to the extent that she hasn't given us a John Hughes setting, she succeeds. Park's writing here is marked in its opening scenes by rapid-fire delivery, partially completed statements, repetition, a deliberately frenetic and frantic rhythm that ultimately settles down as "peerless'" calculatedly absurdist chain of events unfolds in a story involving betrayal, treachery, deceit, a bit of the supernatural and death, all in the name of upward academic mobility.
M (Sasha Diamond) and L (Laura Sohn) are consumed by academic achievement. They are at the effect of operating in a high-achieving, highly competitive academic setting in which, both as young women and as Asian-Americans the bar is set a bit higher.
L has agreed to her M's blueprint that L enter high school a year behind her sister so the two won't compete. First M, argues, then L. But when M is denied early admission to the college of her choice and learns that a harmless, geeky male classmate named D (Ethan Dubin), has gained what she considers to have been her spot, M, with the active support and involvement of L, sets in motion a plan to eliminate the competition. M is spurred on by the cryptically worded forecasts of the class oddball — a rough-hewn, to say the least, outsider named Dirty Girl (Adina Verson), who clearly marches to her own drummer and communicates with a universe that is in a whole other sphere, barks and wails cryptic riddles; "Macbeth's" three witches conflated into one figure. Once the blood lust begins flowing, there is no stopping.
"Peerless" is concerned not only about the broader socio-academic-cultural issue but also the human toll. There are consequences, Park suggests; transformational processes that eat away at the soul. M and L's relationship is built on a constantly shifting dynamic that undergoes stresses and strains as their cold-hearted partnership plays out its games. Roles change and the fabric of their sibling bond frays.
Park has a lot on her mind. Add to the above issues around friendship, family, identity, ethnic stereotyping. Park saves her sharpest, most sardonic commentary for often-expressed notion that it's hard to tell one Asian-American from another because all Asian-Americans all look alike. It's an attitude that only is demeaning, it is, in Park's view here, somewhat emblematic of a culture in which it is all too convenient to make judgments about people based on how they appear.
The performances under Louisa Proske's direction are crisp and precise in a robotic kind of way. There is little sense of the kind of substantive underpinning that would turn figures who are little more than vessels into characters cut from whole cloth.
"Peerless" leads us to a clever turn at the end that really isn't too difficult to see coming. But once there, you're left with the nagging feeling that, in the end, all Parks' sound and fury signifies, of not nothing, then very little.
What: "peerless" by Jiehae Park. Directed by Louisa Proske
With: Adina Verson, Laura Sohn, Sasha Diamond, Ronald Alexander Peet, Ethan Dubin
Who: Barrington Stage Company
Where: St. Germain Stage, Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, 36 Linden St., Pittsfield. Through Aug. 6. Evenings — Tuesday and Wednesday at 7; Thursday through Saturday at 8. Matinees — Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at 3
Running time: 1 hour 23 minutes (no intermission)
Tickets: information online at barringtonstageco.org; by phone at (413) 236-8888; or in person at Boyd-Quinson Mainstage box office — 30 Union St., Pittsfield