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Writing Rivals Find the Light in ‘Unrivaled’

Through humor and big personalities, Unrivaled looks at key pieces of Asian artistry and what changes (or doesn’t) over the centuries. The co-production from Seattle Public Theater and SIS Productions runs through June 2. 

 

Two of classical Japan’s most prominent female authors — Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon — become (semi-fictionalized) frenemies in Rosie Narasaki’s Unrivaled, which juxtaposes their 11th-century setting with contemporary dialogue as it touches on lots of interesting questions: on art, politics, love, the complexities of female friendships, and more.

Full of comedy, the play itself entertains a little more than it engages with any of those issues. But the show’s talented cast and well-realized production design make the piece feel greater than the sum of its parts in this co-production from the long-running SIS Productions, which champions Asian American women in theatre, and Seattle Public Theater.

Our narrator is Empress Fujiwara no Teishi (an effervescent Adele Lim) who, despite her exalted status, reads more like the tipsy girl in the bar bathroom who loaned you a hair tie and thinks you’re, like, so pretty. Like a sort of omniscient Instagram influencer, Teishi dishes on the workings of the Imperial court during the tail end of the Heian period of classical Japanese history like she’s catching you up on a season of Real Housewives.

Stacking your court with poets (who also served as ladies-in-waiting for the Empress) was de rigueur during this time, so we’re introduced to the play’s two protagonists at a sort of job interview. Rising star Murasaki (Pearl Lam), whose Tale of Genji (widely considered the first novel) has made her a household name, is looking to join Teishi’s court. Interviewing her for the position is Sei (Alanah Pascual), herself a celebrated, if a little less cerebral, author, who was basically the Buzzfeed of her day.

There’s not a lot of common ground to be found between party-girl Sei and the intense, introverted Murasaki at first. Eventually, game recognizes game, and the two women bond over their art, and their affection for the Empress. But between political maneuvering, professional jealousy, and the inevitable man troubles, we watch as the relationship devolves from nascent friendship into bitter rivalry. 

Lim, Lam, and Pascual look to be having a blast onstage under director Mimi Katano’s light hand, and their energy is infectious. Pascual in particular gives Sei a fun, breezy confidence that’s believable but brittle, papering over her wounded vulnerability and desperate desire to be loved, in both her personal and professional life. Lam, on the other hand, brings a bluntness and a brusqueness to Murasaki, skillfully allowing it to give way to a genuine desire to connect. Lim’s Teishi, bubbly and bright, acts as a catalyst that brings out the best and worst in each woman, but brings a surprising pathos to later scenes when the Empress’ fortune has taken a turn for the worse. 

And last but not least, Michael Wu rounds out the cast as Sei’s former lover and Teishi’s cunning uncle Michinaga, whose romance with Murasaki seems to be about 50 percent genuine affection and 50 percent part of his scheme to overthrow the current Emperor. The two meet-cute with Michinaga sneaking into Murasaki’s quarters to steal the next chapter of her novel, since he just can’t wait to read what happens next. Wu and Lam share a sweet, awkward chemistry, but Wu feels a touch too sweet and perhaps not quite scheming enough in the role to raise the dramatic stakes much. 

Drawing from Edo-period engravings of the two women — who, in reality, never overlapped during their time in Teishi’s court — the costume design from Jacqueline Edwards is a lovely blend of era-appropriate Japanese garb and contemporary elements, with particular shades (violet for Murasaki, turquoise for Sei) belonging to each character. I enjoyed the way that, as we got to know the women better, the more formal elements eventually give way to simpler, more modern costume pieces, even down to Sei and Murasaki padding around the set in cute, patterned socks. 

Fascinating, if occasionally a little obscure, was the use of fans throughout the piece, presumably patterned off the language of fans as expressed in Noh theatre tradition. Each actress had a fan in their assigned color, serving an intriguing variety of purposes: sometimes masking the women’s faces in vulnerable moments; sometimes indicating that a poem was in the works; sometimes standing in for an object. Students of Noh theatre traditions would, I’m sure, have gleaned much more nuance from the usage than I could, but it adds a fascinating formal element when juxtaposed with the play’s more casual, modern language. 

The set design, by Robin Macartney, is spare but effective, splitting the stage to give Sei and Murasaki their own designated territory, with much of Teishi’s action taking place in the space between. Screens are used liberally and, as with the actors’ fans, often allow the characters to speak more freely when hidden from view. I was somewhat less enamored of the play’s sound design (by Josh Valdez), which intersperses J-pop songs during scene transitions to little emotional effect, though it’s possible it would convey more to someone more familiar with the genre.

Whatever your knowledge going in, it’s a pleasure to see a production centering current Asian American voices and talent. Unrivaled is fun and imaginative, exploring how far we’ve come in some ways and how far we still have to go in others. 


Unrivaled runs through 6/2 at Seattle Public Theater at Green Lake. Tickets ($10-$100, sliding scale available to all) here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gender-neutral and multi-stall; theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible.

Run time: 1 hour 40 minutes, no intermission. 

Jill Farrington Sweeney is a Texas ex-pat getting to know the Seattle-area arts scene, and is perpetually on the hunt for good Mexican food. Her writing has appeared on TheaterJones, Onstage NTX, and NWTheatre.