Francesca and Isabella Dawis (M and L) are sensational in peerless. Clad in their matching twin “uniforms” with only red and yellow accessories to distinguish them, M and L are twins who have purposely staggered themselves in school. “You and then me,” the constant refrain of this diabolical one-act, centers the central conflict: both girls dream of getting into “The College,” a prestigious institution that only has one minority spot in every early enrollment cycle. When the unthinkable happens and a boy who is 1/16th Native receives the one and only spot, the girls devise a plan to take the spot from D (Neal Beckman) and get what they believe they deserve. Anyone familiar with MacBeth will see the similarities in this plot, but that wasn’t a distraction. The first offering from Theater Mu’s newest artistic director, peerless delves into intersectionality in compelling ways.
When Orphan Black first came out, I was constantly astonished how Tatiana Maslany could make you realize when she was one twin pretending to be a different one. To have two people doing it simultaneously – to see M pretend to be L while L is pretending to be M is exquisitely creepy and beyond effective. Not only is it great acting, but it drives home their internalized racism—they way they start to actually believe that they are interchangeable to the society at large. Francesca and Isabella work flawlessly together. Their overlapping dialogue and physical familiarity with one another cement M and L’s relationship as the emotional center of the piece. The sisters see everyone as a stereotype – even themselves. During Hoopcoming, an excitable D candidly explains to the sisters about his life and struggles. When D tells M that he can always recognize her, M starts to see D as more than a stereotype (“average white dude looking for any advantage he can get”) and to see herself as someone other than L. This scene works so well because of the chemistry of the three – Beckman’s D is over-eager and naïve while L tries to cajole M into carrying out their plan.
Dirty Girl (Meredith Casey) and BF (Kenyai O’Neal) round out this 5-person cast, adding additional dimension and perspectives to the high school experience. This small cast works well together, playing up the pathos of high school that feels part John Hughes and part Heathers. The dialogue is non-stop; it is the quick patter of hormones, hope, adolescent rage, and purposeful aloofness. No adults appear in peerless and their absence makes perfect sense: these characters are young adults, standing on the precipice of their adult lives. They are, for better or for worse, decision makers in their own rights.
In terms of the production, sound design by Kevin Springer (particularly the perfect bubblegum teen soundtrack) set the right mood. Scene changes took a bit long and I am not sure they add much to the sense of place—I think they could have been trimmed to keep up the narrative tension of the piece.
It was hard to watch this show and not think of recent college admission scandals or the infamous Fischer vs. UT Austin affirmative action case. Of course, those scandals were about white students—white students whose parents felt they needed even more advantages than they already had. The students in peerless take matters into their own hands. Unable to bribe or influence their way into The College, murder starts to make some convoluted sense. M and L have completely absorbed the lessons American culture has taught them. Nowhere is this more evident than in the blank smiles they use to placate everyone who walks down their school hallway; they have learned to use their power as “model minorities” to hide their true feelings and to play the game they know is rigged against them.
The results are explosive! You have until Feb 16th to check out this performance.