The script for Peerless landed in my inbox on my birthday as a present from a fellow theatre artist. I fell in love instantly with the delightfully complex, maniacal, hilarious Asian American women that live in those pages and devoured the script in one sitting. A month later, I learned that ArtsWest included it in their 2018 season and was eventually cast as M alongside Maile Wong as L in the Seattle premiere of Peerless, directed by Sara Porkalob.
A modern twist on Macbeth, Peerless follows M & L, Asian American twins who are determined to win a coveted early admission minority scholarship to the university of their dreams. When they discover someone else has been awarded the scholarship, the twins decide to resort to alternative methods to get what they want and let nothing stand in their way.
Peerless challenged me as an actor in the best possible ways and reminded me why I fell in love with theatre. Here are five things I learned from my experience:
As theaters are making a concerted effort to add diversity to their stages, this play is the kind of work I hope to see more of on stages across the country. Before Peerless, I had never read a script with such dynamic Asian American female characters. The twins, M & L, use their racial identity as a tool, a weapon, and a veil as they lean into and defy stereotypes about Asian women at every turn. Peerless utilizes a small but diverse cast of characters to put identity under a microscope. It isn’t just an Asian American story; it is an American story.
A fresh take on a classic can engage new audiences.
Mirroring Macbeth, Peerless is a timely, accessible take on a classic. My favorite performance was for a group of junior high students. We asked the kids how many of them wanted to do theatre after seeing the show, and hands shot into the air. They not only related to the story being told; they shared unique insights into the parallels between Macbeth and Peerless. When asked what their favorite part of the story was, one student answered, “I loved the whole movie.”
Pacing is everything.
Peerless is a ninety-minute, no-intermission, non-stop thriller. Playwright Jiehae Park describes Peerless, saying, “This play is a comedy…until it’s not.” Beyond the high-paced action of the play, the twins speak at a clip that doesn’t allow the actors to falter a beat. Maile and I were devoted to perfecting the rhythmic, artful style in which the twins finish each other’s sentences and follow one another’s trains of thought. Audience members shared with me that another way Peerless echoed Shakespeare was that it took a moment to tune their ear to the style of speech. I love a show that requires the audience to stay fully engaged.
Tech is best when it complements the work onstage.
The tech elements of our production were designed to support the dense script, high stakes, and fast pace of the show. A minimalist approach was taken with the set and props to allow one location to bleed into another as the story shifted. The world of the play was brought to life through shifting light and layered sound that acted as a pulse for the show.
There is always a benefit to challenging an audience.
Lastly and most importantly, I learned that there is a benefit to challenging an audience even if they don’t leave the theater with the message you, as a theatre artist, intended. Peerless is divisive. Each character is complicated in their own unique way. You end up leaving the theater arguing with your friend about who is a heroic villain and who is a villainous hero; who deserved what they were dealt and who unfairly lost the game.
There were nights when I could feel the audience wasn’t on my side. I wanted to shout, “Sure she’s a murderous psychopath, but she’s also an Asian American woman who has to put up with a lot! Can’t you see?” I was surprised how personal it felt. I wanted the audience to leave the theater, if not on my side, then at least understanding my character’s perspective.
Of course, that’s not always possible. What is for certain is that for those ninety minutes, the audience shared in your storytelling, laughter, fears, and empathy. Everyone leaves different than they were before. Like the plot of Peerless, there’s no going back.