Review: Peerless Imagines a Harvard-Bound Macbeth
Jiehae Park's Shakespearean satire looks at the ambition, paranoia, and identity politics wrapped up in elite college admissions.
Next to 11th-century Scottish royals, ambition and bloodlust best define teenagers bound for the Ivy League. Naturally, Shakespeare's Macbeth has been reimagined six ways from Sunday — including the not-to-be-forgotten-movie-turned-musical Scotland, PA, set in the cutthroat world of fast food chains. But as transmutations go, playwright Jiehae Park has found a natural fit in Peerless, a work that has been floating around the country for several years but finally makes its off-Broadway debut with a memorable Primary Stages production, directed by Margot Bordelon, at 59E59 Theaters.
Rather than a plotting husband-and-wife team, we have M and L (Sasha Diamond and Shannon Tyo), a pair of Asian-American twins with all the markings of "model minority" success: Sky-high grade point averages, near-perfect SAT scores, artistic and athletic prowess. They can (and do) rattle off their stats like achievement automatons, dressed in identical prudish outfits (costumes by Amanda Gladu) differentiated only by colored headbands like bookish versions of the red and yellow Power Rangers.
The purpose of this academic death grip? To get into "The College," of course (in keeping with the Scottish Play's theatrical tradition, the name is never actually spoken, but the "Veritas" insignia makes a few subtle appearances). M plans to the win this year's one-and-only early decision spot reserved specifically for minority students, while L plans to win it next year (L held herself back a year in anticipation of this very issue). What they didn't bet on was another high-achieving classmate (D, played with charming effervescence by Benny Wayne Sully) stumbling upon his Native-American ancestry at the 11th hour. Coupled with a better sob story to share with the admissions department (he has a sick brother and has overcome suicidal depression), he snatches that big envelope right out of M's hands.
Park stylizes her play with repetitive dialogue and rhythmic patter that sets the nerves so on edge that you can't help but feel immediately threatened— if not by impending murder than by shattering anxiety (Kristen Robinson's overwhelmingly blue unit set provides an appropriately consuming vortex). This heightened tone, highlighting Bordelon's directorial precision and bolstered by Marié Botha's campy cameos as our clairvoyant witch character (blessed with the moniker "Dirty Girl") serves as both a quirky, modern answer to Shakespeare's lyricism and a balm for the play's patchy premise. After all, it's a bit of a stretch to believe that Harvard will simply continue down a school roster admitting the first qualified minority who lives to see the fall. But in the world of elite college admissions — a realm that thrives on paranoia, identity politics, and the illusion of scarcity — Park's rendering is accurate in spirit if not the hard facts of reality (Mextly Couzin and Palmer Hefferan lend perfectly foreboding lighting and sound).
Diamond and Tyo make for a compelling duo, translating Macbeth's romantic partnership into a deep familial one that breaks through M and L's anemic and stereotypical veneer. Tyo is hilarious in her sadistic calculations as our stand-in for Lady Macbeth, but at the root of her callousness, reveals unbounded loyalty. Meanwhile, Diamond, as our easily swayed Macbeth, cultivates a modicum of sympathy as a trusting partner whose ambitions ultimately outweigh her morals.
Park satirizes a world that pits tribe against tribe (so to speak), eventually asking what happens when the choice is between your tribe and yourself. As we've seen through the years of lawsuits surrounding affirmative action and Ivy League admissions policies, higher education has become a prime battle ground for class, race, and identity warfare. And yet, through the backdoor of Shakespeare, Park poses taboo questions about where righteous loyalties end and personal ambitions begin. Our national debates may be shaped around stories of hard work and the American dream, but to quote the Bard, perhaps it's all just "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."