by Casey Mink
Peerless, the audacious play running through Aug. 6 at Barrington Stage, has been challenging its audiences in both the story it tells and the manner in which it tells it. Depicting high school seniors and twin sisters, M (Sasha Diamond) and L (Laura Sohn), both of whom are hell bent on getting into the perfect college, the piece grapples with the question of how far two ambitious young women will go in order to get what they want. In so doing, Peerless also examines matters of individualism and taking what it is you think you deserve from the world—all the while maintaining a tone of ominous humor.
Days before concluding their Peerless run, Diamond and Sohn discussed the challenges and thrills entailed in starring in a piece that is forward-thinking and which urges its audience to lean in a bit closer. The two Asian-American actresses also examined the implications of being nonwhite in a piece not directly dealing with race, whether they believe the theatre is heading towards a “post-racial” space, and how audiences in the Berkshires have embraced a piece of work that is pushing boundaries in more ways than one.
Starting broad, can you each describe your roles in Peerless?
SD: I play M. Peerless is loosely based on Macbeth, so M corresponds to the Macbeth character. She’s a high school senior, who has just learned that she has not gotten into the college of her choice, so the rest of the play is about navigating that loss.
LS: I play L, who is M’s twin sister. She acts out the role of a younger sister, and Lady Macbeth.
You guys do play twins. Did you know each other prior to this project? What was it like establishing your chemistry as twins?
LS: We didn’t know each other beforehand, but we did a callback audition together. From there, [director] Louisa [Proske] was really helpful with developing a relationship and chemistry with things like ritualistic exercises. And we did our own research about twins.
I imagine that, in playing twins, you get to know each other in a very intimate way. Is there truth to that?
LS: Yeah, definitely I would say yes.
SD: Barrington Stage has been really great and they provide housing for all of us. Laura and I had the opportunity to live together, we got to travel into town together, and spend a lot of time together. We definitely have been able to spend more time together than what is normal for a regular rehearsal process.
Your characters will basically do whatever it takes to get into the ideal college. Were either of you like that when you were applying to school?
SD: I went to an honors high school in New York that had a very competitive nature. I think both of us experienced pressure from our families to aim for big name schools or schools that carry a certain reputation. But ultimately, I think Laura and I both chose schools that focused on us more as individuals. Laura went to Rutgers, and I went to Washington University in St. Louis, and both schools are fantastic, they just happen to not be ivy [league]. But I think both of us felt pressure from family or peers to strive for that top, big name school, so yes.
LS: I went to a public high school, and it kind of was a badge of honor where you got accepted to school. It was very much something that students would brag about to one another.
You’re playing high school students again. What was it like revisiting that sometimes-traumatic period?
SD: I think what’s interesting about this play—we have such a different audience here than we would in New York. A lot of our audiences are older and they wouldn’t have necessarily experienced high school in the same way that we did. I feel like what’s exciting about this play is that it’s less about the high school experience and more about the human experiences of competition and self-evaluation and self-worth and how much you will do to get what you want or what you think that you deserve. So I don’t know about Laura, but for me at least, it was less about revisiting my high school years and whatever trauma happened there. It was more about understanding the characters as peers and as individuals in the world that are dealing with these questions and concerns.
LS: The script actually applies itself to a high school language because of the language and because of how fast it moves, and so that was fun, channeling a more youthful version of ourselves. The circumstances of the play—I won’t give any spoilers—but if you see the play, the circumstances that [playwright] Jiehae [Park] gives in the script, are pretty intense for a high school student. It kind of translates like real life into the perspective of a high school student, because that is their number one priority, getting into a college, that’s the biggest problem they face.
What is it like being in piece of theatre that is so ambitious and forward-thinking?
SD: I love this play, and I love how tight it is. If you threw it into the ocean, it would survive on its own, you know what I mean? It’s that kind of thing where, unto itself, it’s a scrappy, significant, tight piece of work. It’s so, so good. I think a lot of new work is doing that—not necessarily as tight as this play, and certainly not necessarily as fast, but I think a lot of works these days are trying to push the limits and push the boundaries, and it’s exciting to work on a play that does it so well.
The show is billed as “a comedy… until it isn’t.” It sounds like the show gets very dark.
SD: It’s such a great tagline for the play, because of course, the stakes for our characters remain serious the entire play, but the amount of laughter that comes from the audience—it’s great, because you kind of experience them experiencing the story. They’re all happy and they’re laughing and they’re enjoying this banter, and then this big event happens, and you feel people leaning in. Nobody’s laughing.
LS: It’s weirdly interesting because some nights we’ll have people laugh until scene two, and then it will be quiet throughout the rest of the show. Other times, we’ll have people be very vocal throughout the play, and we’ll realize, ‘Oh, we didn’t think that was funny, but okay.’ It has a different feel for every single audience. You can just tell the people in the audience who have dark humor who get the show, and the people who come to the show who don’t really get this type of humor.
What have your audiences been like at Barrington Stage? How have they compared to, say, New York audiences?
SD: We’ve been very lucky, I think. We’re not in New York and I don’t know that any of us were expecting to have audiences as forward-thinking as this play is. Being in the Berkshires, and working for a theater where… Let me phrase it this way: I think for the majority of the theatre-going audience in New York and elsewhere, it is for the most part older, white patrons. I say that having seen Broadway houses and having seen off-Broadway houses and having seen regional houses, that’s kind of the demographic you get. Knowing that that’s what we should expect, we were kind of nervous that it wouldn’t be received well. But, across the board, when we’ve had older houses or sometimes younger houses, or—it’s mostly white—but sometimes when we have more diversity in the house, it’s gone really well. These people are paying attention, they’re not leaving, which is impressive! They’re laughing.
You are both playing characters that will be in most ways new to your audiences. What is it like to introduce an audience to your characters?
LS: It’s fun! It’s fun, but also, you can feel the audience engage in our charm. The first real scene that happens between M and L is either received in a generous manner or—no, no, it is received in a generous manner, because when you’re looking at the space of the relationship of these two twin sisters who are Asian-American, it’s really fun to see how the audience will receive it. Although, I do have to say that automatically, when you are doing a show for this demographic of people, they take note of the fact that you are Asian-American and, I don’t know, somehow it kind of spirals into people somewhat unconsciously thinking this is a story about race, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with race at all.
Do you think we’re entering into a post-racial era in theatre?
SD: I think idealistically, that would be amazing. I think the term “post-race” carries as much baggage as the term “post-racial” does. Certainly, this country itself is so far from being post-racial or post-racism. I think that this is the beginning, personally. If you were to ask me, I’d say this is the beginning of what may hopefully become a norm. I think it’s remarkable because it’s new. If it were not something new, then it wouldn’t be remarkable. And I think what surprised us about the fact that our audience is seeing this from a racial perspective or through such a racial lens, was that there are a lot of stories that may be about particular demographics or groups of people, that have nothing to do with race except for that’s who these people are, or that’s one aspect of their lives. I think what’s humanizing about theatre is when an audience can empathize with somebody who looks different from them, who sounds different from them, who feels different from them. They can empathize with them on a human level. I don’t think we’re post-race. I think we’re mid-race right now!
This is the second production of Peerless. Were the show to continue on in another way or production, would you want to continue to be a part of it?
What else would you like people to know about Peerless?
SD: Louisa, our director! When you asked about whether we’d want to be a part of the play if it were to happen again, I think something that is so exciting about this particular production of Peerless is, of course there is the incredible script and we have a team of really awesome actors, but Louisa’s direction, especially. Her attention to text and her aesthetic and her concern for making sure that every action is “active,” for lack of a better term. Every movement is for a reason. It was so exciting to work with her on this play and I would definitely do it again.
LS: Right, Louisa just highlights what it is to story tell, and she is always asking us questions—which is a good thing!