Call it murder on the Orientalism express.
When well-rounded Asian-American twins M (Francesca Dawis) and L (Isabella Dawis) are denied early admission to their first-choice school, they hatch a plan to get in using people’s preconceptions — both favorable and unfavorable.
The twins, who complete each other’s thoughts and sentences, may even kill the perceived competition.
M and L are the center of “Peerless,” Jiehae Park’s comic caper that opened Saturday in St. Paul under the aegis of Theater Mu.
In ways sharp and shallow, clever and messy, the 90-minute one-act plays with stereotype. It’s a dark comedy full of ambition that’s inspired, structurally, by “Macbeth.” But it’s set in a high school stirring with hormones, and with irrational, all-or-nothing behavior as kids dramatically plot out their lives.
Playwright Park’s cutesy naming convention suggests that even though we think we know these characters, think again. They are ciphers and are, perhaps, ultimately unknowable.
“Peerless” premiered at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 2015 on an evergreen subject that’s been much in the news. Scads of Hollywood stars and business moguls have recently been caught up in a college admissions scam, paying bribes to get their mediocre kids admitted to top schools.
And there’s a court case alleging that Harvard’s admission process puts Asian-Americans at a disadvantage.
Outside of the twins, Park’s characters all stand for positions in this debate, including BF (straightforward Kenyai O’Neal), an African-American male who represents affirmative action; white Preppy Girl (versatile Meredith Casey), who has family legacy connections to the school; and D (spastic Neal Beckman), who lives as white but claims 1/16th Native American ancestry.
Gremlin Theatre, where the show is produced in the three-quarter round, has many possibilities for entrances and exits, which can either heighten the focus of the room or dissipate its energy. Director Lily Tung Crystal, the new head of Mu, handles her debut show in the Twin Cities well. She uses crossing patterns effectively, especially for Dirty Girl (Casey), the smoking, clairvoyant weirdo who haunts the twins. And Crystal draws some antic, funny performances from her cast.
The Dawis sisters are whip-smart as the twins. The have a strong mastery of the dialogue, mesmerizing both the characters in the show and the audience. In one scene, one of the sisters flirts with boyfriend D, offering a date with both young women.
He gets giddy and speechless and becomes apoplectic.
That scene, like so much of the show, speaks to its humor and promise. Still, “Peerless” feels like a small offering that comes after reaching for something bigger — an hors d’oeuvre as a main course.