What fills the minds of teens in an elite high school? And what magic or menace is conjured when those competitive minds cross in fast-paced repartee? The results can be evil, cloaked in sweet smiles.
“Peerless,” a much-performed play by East Coast writer Jiehae Park, cleverly explodes onstage at ArtsWest Playhouse in West Seattle.
The play brings with it cute (and also vindictive) Asian American teen twins, a handsome Black boyfriend, a pudgy and insecure White student who claims Native American heritage, and a prescient but disheveled White girl.
Jiehae Park’s play is a speedy, profane roundup of the life-or-death process of applying for admission to an Ivy League college. One of the twins — who is a year ahead in school — does not get in, but the White guy does. Thus a fast-changing revenge plot takes shape.
Park has written two other plays besides “Peerless,” including “Hannah and the Dread Gazebo” and “Here We Are.” Those plays have been produced at Yale Repertory Theatre, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Sundance Institute Lab, Berkeley Repertory Theatre and others.
Park started her career as an actor — where she made the important decision to keep her Korean name instead of changing it to an “American” one — then turned to playwriting, and now television writing. She is now on the writing team of Marvel’s “Runaways,” a Hulu web television series based on the Marvel Comics superhero team of the same name.
Park’s script empowers and reveals the inner truths of young people.
“I love writing teens because that is a time of life when everything feels huge — hormones and emotions are high, and those feelings are very real,” she told The Seattle Globalist. “It’s tough to think of another setting where the stakes feel that consistently high and people are artificially forced to be together for long periods of time.”
She said that her own upbringing, immigrating to America from Seoul as a child, featured lots of pressure from her well-educated parents who very much wanted her to excel academically.
In a Behind the Scenes discussion at ArtsWest, director Sara Porkalob characterized Park’s script dialogue as “action moving at the speed of fun. It’s a socio-political commentary that is not directly stated, but comes out in the script.”
Porkalob said that Park’s dialogue serves a poetic and dramatic purpose, as well as being funny.
“The use of meter in the language is intentional; the play uses language to follow breath and thought,” Porkalob said.
Porkalob says that Park’s teens are not written as “fools for older people.”
“She takes the stereotypes of young Asian American women and flips them to use as weapons,” Porkalob said.
At the ArtsWest discussion, the designers and director, all youngish artists of color, described the challenge of working with the concept of an extremely spare stage with its thin, angular gray panels. Lighting designer Emily Leong spoke of pinning down a space to reveal an emotional intent. Costume designer Isabelle L. Price had to find the right note with the twins’ school girl outfits and the simple but elegant school dance dresses.
The two actors who play the close twins, Maile Wong and Corinne Magin, said that they found the script “dark and funny; deliciously funny, but even deeper.”
Their mean-girl lines delivered by Wong and Magin, who are dressed alike except for different colored flowers in their hair, rapidly and meticulously cross over and counterbalance each other: “He’s a waddling pair of pants,” and “he’s fat in his soul.”
The sound design by Stephon Jamaa’l Dorsey sets a stylish contemporary beat in the absence of scenic props.
“I needed to give each of the characters their own sound design and make sound bridges between the audience and stage,” L’Dorsey said.
Park said she was able to develop and complete some of her plays thanks to artist residencies. “Peerless” was written mostly within a week at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. She also credits Hedgebrook on Whidbey Island with “a type of care that allows the part of the brain that is constantly buzzing to take care of basic life needs (food/shelter/insurance/etc.) to soften, and let both body and mind relax into being fully present.”
Park said in a commentary that writing successfully is a continuous process.
“Hopefully I let it flow, but there is a lot of time sitting and waiting or writing really bad stuff that I know I’ll throw out. The act of writing is still very mysterious to me, but it’s such a joy and relief when something does happen.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Stephon Jamaa’l Dorsey’s name. This has been corrected.