Promotional image from Unrivaled, featuring actors Alanah Pascual (left) and Pearl Lam (right). Courtesy.

Seattle Public Theater is in its 34th season of productions, and the theme for the year is Upending Fate. Accordingly, taking things in hand in the final full-length play of Seattle Public Theater’s season are two 11th-century Japanese ladies-in-waiting, Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon, who were also writers and competitors, and who form the core of Unrivaled, written by Rosie Narasaki and directed by Mimi Katano. Unrivaled is produced by SIS Productions as a part of Seattle Public Theater’s season

Both women wrote significant works of Japanese literature. Murasaki Shikibu is the author of The Tale of Genji, often considered the world’s first novel, and Sei Shonagon is famed for her diary, called The Pillow Book.

Billed as a “Mean Girls-style” take on these two historical figures, Unrivaled explores the lives of this pair of women, including their experiences of love, friendship, and artistry.

Playwright Narasaki first learned about Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon in college. “I read The Tale of Genji first, and was struck by how modern it felt,” she recalled. “I read The Pillow Book a few semesters later, and that feels even more modern. Here they are, over a thousand years ago, and they’re writing about one-night stands!”

Even more fascinating to Narasaki was the breadth of women’s voices from this era in Japan. “Most of the writing that survived from that time was written by women,” she said. “I can’t think of any other period of history in any other culture where that’s true.” 

So Narasaki started to imagine what Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon’s meeting must have been like and began to dive into the archives. “When I was first researching for the play, I was really disappointed to learn that Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu probably never met in real life,” she admitted. “But then I remembered, it’s fiction! I can make it up if I want to!”

While researching, Narasaki was blessed with too much information about Heian-era Japan to include in a single play. “Like, apparently there were a lot of fires back then, because everything was made of paper and wood,” she said. “There was something funny about that, especially when I think of all the paper and candlelight featured in my play.”

Narasaki wrote the play in 2019, but the Covid-19 pandemic intervened to interrupt a staged production for a few years. “I made a few changes to the script to hopefully reflect a bit more of the maturity and confidence I’d gained,” she recounted. “I like to joke that I was more like the Murasaki character when I started writing it and more like the Sei character once it actually got produced.” 

Then, in 2023, when Unrivaled was produced in Los Angeles, Narasaki engaged one of her previous professors, Lynne Miyake, to serve as the research dramaturg. “I felt so lucky that we got to work with her,” Narasaki said. “She compiled a 70-page packet, complete with diagrams of the palace layout and multiple family trees, since all of the characters in the play are various levels of related.”

For Seattle Public Theater’s production, Narasaki is excited to work with director Mimi Katano. “Mimi is amazing!” Narasaki enthused. “One of the first things she told me was that she was planning to use J-pop music for the scene transitions. I’m so excited to see what she does with the play.”

For her part, director Katano first learned of the play from Kathy Hsieh, co-founder and creative producer of SIS Productions. “Murasaki Shikibu is very well known in Japan where I grew up and certainly someone we study as part of history class,” Katano said. “I have always found it remarkable that a female novelist from the 11th century left her mark for many centuries from a country that is historically very patriarchal.”

Katano was delighted that Unrivaled is a comedy, in addition to being well-researched.  “As a Japanese native director, my personal artistic mission is to help bridge Japan and the US through theatrical projects,” she said. “This was a no brainer.”

Amy Poisson, Seattle Public Theater Producing Artistic Director, agreed that Narasaki’s play was well-suited to Seattle Public Theater’s partnership with SIS Productions.  “Unrivaled was one of the many wonderful plays that SIS Productions considered for production at SPT,” Poisson said, “and the final decision was theirs.”

The actors are equally excited about the script. Pearl Lam, who plays the role of Murasaki Shikibu, appreciates the solace that her character finds in solitude. “One of my favorite quotes from her diary is ‘It is my destiny to be solitary,’” Lam said. “It’s the state she’s made peace with, and this play brings some people into her life to challenge that!”

The actor playing Sei Shonagon, Alanah Pascual, says this historical figure listens to her inner voice without judgment. “The most interesting thing about her is the way she observes the world,” Pascual said. “I admire her state of flow so immensely.”

Meanwhile, actor Adele Lim, who plays the Empress Teishi, revels in the Empress’s willingness to win at any cost. “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’ after all!” Lim mused. “I love her zest for living life to the fullest, which now that I’m thinking about it, probably resulted in significant cultural contributions to the flowering of Japanese culture during the Heian period!”

The biggest challenge for the artistic team, according to Katano, involves the design. “The story is based on the 11th century world, but has a modern take,” she explained. “We have to execute the simplicity and the elegance of the form both in scenic and costume design on a limited budget. However, I have an amazingly creative team who can achieve this goal in ways that I haven’t even thought of.”

Meanwhile, the actors have engaged in preparations of their own, and Lam has been been reading The Tale of Genji, The Diary of Lady Murasaki, and The Pillow Book. “Aside from dramaturgical research, prepping has consisted mostly of daydreaming to flesh out what Murasaki’s world and relationships look like,” Lam said. “What she wants more than anything is genuine connection, but that’s hard to distill in a period ruled by politics and status, especially if you’re not used to being around other people.”

Pascual has been listening to podcasts that describe Sei Shonagon’s work and the way she views the world. “I have been watching Kabuki performances to inform the way I move and handle the poetry in our play,” she elaborated. “I also have been reading Sei’s Pillow Book of course. The play explores Sei’s jealousy and insecurity, so I have been doing a bit of ‘shadow work’ and exploring how my own jealousy manifests.”

Lim has particularly appreciated the preparation the cast has done in rehearsal under Katano’s guidance.  “We’ve been layering findings from our textual fact-finding missions, ongoing dramaturgy, highly specific movement work including fan choreography, and adding costume and prop pieces that have significantly impacted our character work,” Lim described.  “We talked about Teishi as water, Sei as fire, and Murasaki as rock.” 

Every rehearsal has been a process of discovery. “My greatest challenge in this process is allowing myself to not know all the answers right away, allowing the layers of the play to unfold themselves when they need to,” Pascual shared. “I feel like every time we go through it, something I say takes on a whole new meaning.”

Lam agreed regarding the layers of Unrivaled. “Like poetry, there’s a lot of implication and suggestion,” she said, “so diving into that to unpack the layers and then create personal meaning from it has been a rewarding challenge.” 

Mediating between the two 11th-century writers, actor Lim is finessing the Empress’ character so that she operates on three levels at once. “The biggest challenge I’ve faced has been in navigating the nuances,” Lim said, “where I can say with satisfaction that I have woven a character that embodies the historical and cultural context of this very real person that existed, serves her function sort of outside the play as a pseudo-narrator device person, and serves the story within the play as a real person with objectives and obstacles and relationships.”

This Seattle Public Theater and SIS production will be particularly special for playwright Narasaki, in part because it’s Narasaki’s Seattle premiere and also due to her family roots here in the Seattle area. “My father grew up in Renton and studied acting at Cornish College of the Arts,” she shared. “He has three sisters who live in Seattle and they are all coming on opening night!”

Unrivaled runs from May 10 to June 2 at Seattle Public Theater, 7312 West Green Lake Drive North, Seattle. 

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