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Theater Mu’s ‘Peerless’ is dark and relentless; ‘The Composer Is Dead!’ at North High

ALSO: Ragamala Dance Company’s “Written in Water” at the Ordway; “What God Is Honored Here?” readings at University Club of St. Paul.

Isabella Dawis as L, Meredith Casey as Dirty Girl, and Francesca Dawis as M in "Peerless."
Photo by Rich Ryan

About “Peerless,” Jiehae Park has said, “This play is a comedy … until it’s not.”

She should know. She wrote it.

Now at the Gremlin (this is the final weekend), “Peerless” starts off innocently enough. Asian-American teenage twin sisters M and L talk a mile a minute, finishing each other’s sentences, dropping F-bombs, rehashing their plans to get into The College of their dreams with an early admission minority scholarship. Then, a snag. A classmate, D, has discovered he’s one-sixteenth Native American. He gets in. They get mad. And they’ll stop at nothing to get what they want. M’s scream of frustration is epic.

With Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” as her GPS, Park created a story of greed, ambition, obsession and rage. There’s a character, Dirty Girl (Meredith Casey), who stands in for the three Weird Sisters, proclaiming “Hail! Hail!” to M. There’s even a ghost.

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In Theater Mu’s regional premiere, helmed with confidence by its new artistic director, Lily Tung Crystal, M & L are played by real-life, Minneapolis-born sisters Francesca and Isabella Dawis. They’re diabolically perfect in the roles, and convincing in a fight scene choreographed by Eric Pogi Sumangil.

M and L aren’t shy about using their racial identity to get their way. “We’re double minorities, Asian and female!” If whites think they look alike, it just makes them easier to fool. M exchanges flirtatious greetings in Mandarin Chinese (“Ni hao!”) with a teacher even though she’s not Chinese. What difference does it make? He really, really likes her.

The most sympathetic character is D, played with a reckless physicality by Neal Beckman. Naïve and nerdy, formerly overweight and suicidal, caretaker for a brother with cystic fibrosis, he’s dazzled by M, who feigns interest in him. D can’t believe his luck that she’s his date at the big school dance. Things are finally looking up for him, or so it seems.

“Peerless” is dark and relentless. It comments on stereotypes and the lengths people will go to for admission to the “right” college, for themselves or their children (although it predates the 2019 college admissions bribery scandal). Four performances remain: tonight and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. FMI and tickets (pay-as-you-are; $35 fair market value). Closes Sunday.

The picks

The Assistant
Photo by Ty Johnson/Luminary Productions LLC/Courtesy of Bleecker Street
Julia Garner in Kitty Green’s "The Assistant."
Opens Friday at the Uptown Theatre: “The Assistant.” From award-winning filmmaker Kitty Green (“Casting JonBenet”), a very quiet, very creepy film. Emmy winner Julia Garner (“Ozarks”) is Jane, an entry-level assistant to a Harvey Weinstein-like studio executive. Intelligent and educated, she dreams of being a producer. Over the course of a single day – she rises before dawn to arrive early enough to turn on lights and make coffee – she comes to realize what kind of man her boss really is. And how complicit those around her are, from the male assistants who share her space, to the few women above her who pretend she doesn’t exist, to the HR executive who gaslights her. The whole story plays out on Garner’s face in a remarkable and nuanced performance. We never see the predator, but we clearly see the system that supports and enables him. “The Assistant” is horrifying and masterfully done. FMI including times, trailer and tickets.

Saturday at Next Chapter Booksellers: “Diesel Heart”: A Jazz/Blues/Gospel rendition presented by the Carters & Friends. Published by the Minnesota Historical Society, “Diesel Heart: An Autobiography” is the story of Melvin Whitfield Carter Jr., son of Rondo, former St. Paul police officer (28 years) and father of St. Paul Mayor Melvin W. Carter III. This event is billed as “a jazz style retelling” of the book. The author is a musician who once played trumpet in a band with his brother, fronting for Jackie Wilson, the Staples Singers and Prince. 6 p.m. Free.

Saturday at SooVAC: Opening reception for Untitled 16. This is the 16th year of SooVAC’s juried exhibition series, always a window into what’s happening in art right now. Submissions are open to artists at any stage of their career, working in any medium, so you never know what you’ll see. The 25 artists in this year’s show were selected from 172 submissions by juror Natalie Bell, curator at MIT List Visual Arts Center. 6-9 p.m. Free. Exhibition closes March 21.

Ragamala Dance Company
Photo by Bruch Palmer
Ragamala Dance Company performs “Written in Water” Saturday at the Ordway.
Saturday at the Ordway: Ragamala Dance Company: “Written in Water.” In 2017, before performing “Written in Water” at the Cowles, Ragamala founder Ranee Ramaswamy said, “When you write in water, it’s not concrete. It’s constantly changing.” Ragamala has toured “Written in Water” ever since, and it’s safe to assume this evening-length dance has become even more profound and beautiful. Blending the exquisite movements and gestures of traditional Bharatanatyam dance with an ancient Indian game, projections of paintings by artist V. Keshav and an original score by Carnatic composer Prema Ramamurthy and Iraqi-American composer Amir ElSaffar, this will be a rapturous multimedia experience. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($27-42).

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Sunday at North Community High School: Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra: One-Hour Family Friendly Concert: “The Composer Is Dead!” This will be so much fun. Singer, actor and composer Jake Endres will narrate Nathaniel Stookey’s musical whodunit, which brings to life Lemony Snicket’s murder mystery. A composer is dead; an investigator is called in; and it’s all an elaborate excuse to introduce the audience to the instruments (and the magic, and the power) of the orchestra. Snicket, a children’s author whose wit is famously droll, has said, “I like to think of ‘The Composer Is Dead’ as sort of a gateway drug that will lead to a lifelong addiction to classical music.” The MSO will follow with John Williams’ music from the final scene of the first “Star Wars” film, “Throne Room & Finale.” Directed by William Schrickel. 3 p.m. Free.

Tuesday at the University Club of St. Paul: Readings by Writers, hosted by Tim Nolan: “What God Is Honored Here?” This edition of the long-running series will be a heartbreaker and a potential healer. Shannon Gibney, Kao Kalia Yang, and Catherine Squires will read from the anthology “What God Is Honored Here? Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss by and for Native Women and Women of Color,” published last year by the University of Minnesota Press. Gibney and Yang are the editors, Squires is a contributor. Women on the margins are disproportionately affected by miscarriage, stillbirth, neonatal loss and infant death. Here’s a trailer. 7:30-9 p.m. Free.