Two Asian American mean girls get Macbethian, in ‘Peerless’ at GW

In a production featuring talented George Washington University students, the drama of college admissions takes on Shakespearean proportions.

Stories of power struggles and greed have existed from Shakespearean times to now. In Macbeth, the titular general is driven to murder and madness in his pursuit to become the next king. Imagine that obsession except with Asian American twins trying to get into the college of their dreams — by any means necessary. This is the story in Peerless by Jiehae Park. At George Washington University, in a production featuring student performers for whom high school is no distant past, the play’s conversations about college admissions and diversity ring true. Smart direction by Jodi Kanter keeps up the pacing, and talented performers bring pieces of themselves to these roles.

The story follows M (after Macbeth, played by Katrina Heil), “the smart one” who hopes college will be her ticket out of their small Midwestern town, and L (after Lady Macbeth, played by Charlotte Kim), “the graceful one” who was held back a year. They discover that a fellow student, D (a quasi Duncan/Banquo, played by Dennis Hancock), got into “The College” they were gunning for, partly due to being one-16th Native American. They hatch a plot to kill D, which escalates into more than they bargained for. Along the way, M continually wonders “Why is everyone oppressing me?” — a recurring theme among the diverse characters.

Dennis Hancock as D, Katrina Heil as M, and Charlotte Kim as L in ‘Peerless.’ Photo by Joseph Decilos.

The standout technical elements in this production pay tribute to its Shakespearean scope and the story’s outlandish extremes while grounding us in the reality of a contemporary setting. The sound design by Kebby Seyoum ranges from the noise of grinding rat teeth in moments of M going mad to a playlist of 2000s hits in a school dance scene. The volume levels between the sound and actors’ voices could have been more balanced toward the end of that school dance scene. But that scene still stands out with lighting by Alberto Segarra, including flashing lights that bounce and travel all around the theater.

Michael C. Stepponoway’s set design features lockers that remain stationary throughout and projections that display the titles of each scene. In scenes not set at school, you’re left to imagine more, which leaves a bit more to be desired toward the climax — though the actors endowed the space with intended settings. In costume design by Warren Lewis, M and L’s opening-scene white dresses with red dots and their green-dotted dresses at Hoopcoming harken back to Shakespeare’s “out damn spot.”

Many modern retellings of Shakespeare limit themselves to rehashing the original. Peerless is a compelling adaptation that expands Macbeth’s themes to present-day issues that resonate beyond the original Shakespearean text. The Shakespeare connections came through in the performances, especially Abigail Linderman’s Dirty Girl (representing the witches in Macbeth), who acts with the creepiness that the role requires, making clear what she was there for.

Katrina Heil as M and Abigail Linderman as Dirty Girl in ‘Peerless.’ Photo by Joseph Decilos.

Another standout was this play’s version of the famous “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” Macbeth soliloquy that foreshadows his death after Lady Macbeth’s death. L consoles M, who is worried about the potential for their plan — to continue killing people standing in their way of The College — to fail: “If we get through tomorrow / let’s talk tomorrow / tomorrow’s tomorrow,” L says as M protests: “That’s what I mean, tomorrow…I want to talk now.” The deeper resonance with the sister relationship was a clear expansion on the original. In this version, Macbeth doesn’t think about tomorrow alone; M still has L on her side.

As M and L, Heil and Kim engage in fast, overlapping dialogue and shine in scenes addressing identity. They display the capacity to be ruthless, a solid understanding of the stakes of their actions, and the ability to let their guard down and remember to love. Heil had strength and sweetness in her presence. It was a joy to follow her journey.

Kim has a down-to-earth, matter-of-fact way of directing M to think about the goal: to get into The College. Because her performance was so grounded, I wished for more roughness at points when the character would have reason to get angry. It was an effective performance nonetheless. Her reliable, calm way of saying “you, and then me” — as a reminder that she was doing everything for her sister’s benefit — was beautiful. A climactic fight between the girls (choreographed by Casey Kaleba) is ugly and brutal to watch because we care about their relationship.

As the awkward D, Dennis Hancock brought fun energy to the role — from silly dancing to his recounting of a dream about a tribal ancestor — all while ensuring the language was clear. I wanted more full-body commitment and genuine fear in some of his final moments, but his journey to get there was a joy to see.

Kah’lil Hicks-Jumper as BF and Katrina Heil as M in ‘Peerless.’ Photo by Joseph Decilos.

M’s boyfriend, BF, portrayed by Kah’lil Hicks-Jumper, inserts conversations about intersectionality into the story. When BF tries to convey that it’s wrong for M’s teacher to be creepy and say things like “Ni hao” to a non-Chinese Asian person, he cares from the perspective of another person of color, understanding the experience. It makes a later reveal about intentions in college admissions heartbreaking. The last moment we see him is a plot twist that could have been held longer.

In a post-show talkback at the March 2 performance, panelists discussed this play as an Asian American story. There was a comment about this not being an Asian American story. Perhaps it’s not the classic Asian American story of family and community being central; it’s what that story would be if you were lacking in those relationships.

But this is an Asian American story; they’re just Asian American antiheroes. Peerless reveals the dark underbelly of the model minority myth when pressure for success pushes you too far. And when competition to get what you want deflects you from what matters. It’s a cautionary reminder:  nothing you could desire is ever worth losing it all.

At the end of the day, these are teenagers figuring out how to survive. Failures and setbacks feel like the end of the world especially at that age — and at any age. But with this production, amid the surrealism and chaos, there’s hope that perhaps it isn’t the end of the world. The future of these performers is bright, having told this story at this stage in their education.

Running Time: 90 minutes.

Peerless played February 29 through March 3, 2024, presented by the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design Program of Theatre & Dance performing at the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre, George Washington University Student Center, 800 21st Streett NW, Washington, DC.

The program for Peerless is online here.

COVID Safety: Masks are optional at the university. Complete COVID-19 Guidance for GW Community Members is here.

By Jiehae Park

Director: Jodi Kanter
Costume/Wig Design: Warren Lewis
Set Design: Michael C. Steponowany
Lighting Design: Alberto Segarra
Sound Design: Kebby Seyoum
Fight/Intimacy Director: Casey Kaleba
Properties Supervisor: Mason Dennis
Stage Manager: Wyatt Rhodes

M: Katrina Heil
L: Charlotte Kim
BF: Kah’lil Hicks-Jumper
D/D’s Brother: Dennis Hancock
Dirty Girl/Preppy Girl: Abigail Linderman


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