Regional Reviews: San Diego
The Artistic Director of the Moxie Theatre, Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, has been involved with two shows in a row that deal with immoral characters. Sonnenberg's hit summer musical production that she co-directed, Ruthless!, featured a girl who would do anything to star in an elementary school show. Moxie's season 12 opener, Peerless, follows two sisters who decide to commit unspeakable acts to get what they want.
M (Dana Wing Lau) and L (Jyl Kaneshiro) are suburban high school Asian-American siblings who are inseparable. Intelligent and brutally honest, M hopes to go to a university only known as "The College." She is horrified to find out that a dorky student, D (Justin Lang), is getting what she considers her spot at her dream school. Outraged, M and L come up with a plan to ruin D's chances of attending the institute.
Playwright Jiehae Park describes her work as "a comedy. Until it's not." Her story takes place in a world not far removed from Alexander Payne's film Election (M especially is like a more dangerous version of Reese Witherspoon's Tracy Flick). Inspired by "The Silent Twins," of Wales, and using Macbeth as a starting off point, Park's satirical drama features frequent references to William Shakespeare's classic tragedy. Several of her characters, including M, L, and D, are based on some of the more notable roles from The Bard's tale. As the plot progresses, Park strays farther from Shakespeare's text to try something fresh.
Park's style of dialogue is hard to warm up to. The classmates speak using long sentences and overlapping dialogue in almost all rhythmic fashion. This could be Park tipping her hat to Shakespeare's classic style of writing, but her almost stream of consciousness approach is often off-putting.
Even though Park's writing can come across as self-satisfied, her comedic moments land when she is not trying too hard to be clever. There are sequences that rely less on excessive talking and more on simple jokes.
By the time the halfway point of the 70-minute evening comes along, humor occurs less frequently. The playwright's narrative turns into a psychological thriller, which plays to Sonnenberg's advantage as an artist. Sonnenberg makes the most of the uneven material. There is an atmosphere of madness that is created once M and L commit a horrible act. M suffers a psychological breakdown, which is enhanced on Ashleigh Scott's spare set by AJ Paulin's ghostly lighting and David Scott's disturbing audio.
Supporting performances elevate the unusual writing. Associate Artistic Director Jennifer Eve Thorn is darkly entertaining as the witchy Dirty Girl. In addition, Lang and Vimel Sephus sympathetically portray two men who are important in M's life. Often drawing attention away from the lead role is Kaneshiro who remains the more complicated and layered of the sisters. Kaneshiro's portrayal of the Lady Macbeth influenced L can best be described as a high schooler whose friendly demeanor hides her true sinister personality. While Kaneshiro can appear easygoing and intelligent, she is occasionally terrifying, especially when L tries to snap some sense into M.
This leads to the biggest issue with Peerless. Throughout the night, M never evolves into an interesting lead role. L often steals the spotlight, because she seems like the kind of sociopath that could exist in reality. On the other hand, M is portrayed as an obnoxiously detestable human being. This has less to do with Lau and more to do with the fact that her role includes frequent mean-spirited dialogue and actions. While there are many protagonists that remain captivating in spite of being unempathetic, M doesn't have a whole lot of depth. Not helping matters is the short length of the script. At a little over an hour, Peerless doesn't have the time to reach the dramatic heights required for such a nasty plot. Later scenes feel rushed, which makes them confusing and somewhat difficult to understand. With at least an additional 15-20 minutes, certain revelations and twists would make more sense to the audience.
Well directed and acted, Peerless suffers from a relentlessly pitiless anti-heroine and pretentious writing. Although many mainstream theatregoers are going to scratch their heads, fans of The Scottish Play might want to watch how Park pays homage to the timeless tragedy.
Moxie Theatre presents Peerless through October 9, 2016. Performs Sundays through Saturdays at 6663 El Cajon Blvd, San Diego. Tickets are $30.00 and can be purchased online at www.moxietheatre.com or by phone at 1-858-598-7620.