‘Unrivaled’ Unravels at the Boston Court

By Ernest Kearney  —  In Unrivaled, Playwright Rosie Naraski introduces audiences to Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shōnagon, two celebrated authoresses of 11th century Japan. 

Murasaki (978-1014) served as a noble lady-in-waiting for the Empress Shōshi, and is accredited with writing The Tale of Genji, which recounts, over some 54 chapters, the amorous doings of the “Shining Prince” Genji, son of Emperor Kiritsubo.  The work is praised for its finely delineated characters, of which there are over 400, as well as for its rich and detailed historical record of the aristocracy and culture during Japan’s Heian period.

Regarded as the greatest work of Japanese literature, The Tale of Genji is also one of the world’s earliest novels, or, since Murasaki was a part of the imperial court she wrote about, perhaps it qualifies as the world’s first roman à clef.

Sei Shōnagon (966-1017), like Murasaki, was also a fixture of the imperial court, though her family was of lesser nobility.  During her time at court Sei kept a running compilation of observations, personal grievances, tidbits of gossip and advice; an example of a Japanese literary genre known as Zuihitsu.  (Think Michel de Montaigne’s Essais shuffled in amongst the Wallechinsky’s Book of Lists with a dash of the novel Gossip Girl tossed in.)

The work, entitled The Pillow Book, seemed to have been written as a personal journal and not a novel, and only became public, or so the story goes, when it was carried off by a guest after Sei had neglected to conceal it.

There is, in all likelihood, a great play to be found within this history. Unfortunately, Naraski hasn’t found a great play in that history, she’s just buried her own play under it.

Take a triptych of great historical plays — The Lion in Winter, A Man for All Seasons, Richard III — all three involved baffling dynastic infighting, obfuscated political machinations or an impenetrable blending of both.

Yet these plays work because the characters take on the personification of the history, and are thereby able to bring us into the history.  We don’t need to know claims were made against the inheritance of Philippa of Toulouse, Eleanor’s grandmother, or that Henry suspected Eleanor married their third daughter, Matilda, to Henry of Saxony to elude him. All we need know is that this husband and wife on stage are going at each other tooth and nail.

From the outset Naraski imposes the burden of history on her audience by employing the Empress Teishi (Cindy Nguyen) to deliver a steam of footnotes.  This works initially because Nguyen is as engaging as a basketful of puppies, but when that “steam” swells into a tsunami it drowns the audience and Nguyen submerges her historical drama into a history lesson.

Naraski has also chosen to conceive of a rivalry between Murasaki (Katie Kitani) and Sei (Chelsea Yakura-Kurtz) with the typical dynamics of a reality show akin to The Housewives of Imperial Heian-kyō. 

This proves problematic at best.

Naraski’s intention of introducing Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shōnagon to American audiences is commendable, but sadly, in the end those audiences will probably be trying to buy their introductions back. 

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(Note: Pictured in Featured Image — Chelsea Yakura Kurtz and Cindy Nguyenv. Photo by Paloma Arielle)

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Written by Rosie Narasaki

Directed by Margaret Shigeko Starbuck

Is On Stage At The

Boston Court Pasadena

70 N Mentor Ave.
Pasadena, CA 91106


March 16 – April 23

Additional Details:

Pay What You Choose: Monday, April 3 at 8:00pm

AAPI Affinity Night: Thursday, April 6 at 8:00pm

Community Matinee: Saturday, April 8 at 2:00pm (all tickets $5)

Then & Now: Poetry from the 11th to the 21st Century: Sunday, April 9 at 4:00pm

Student Night & Post Show Discussion on Acting:
Saturday April 15 at 8:00pm ($5 student tickets)

Post-Show Discussion on Theme: Sunday, April 16

Post-Show Discussion on Directing: Saturday, April 22

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes

Closing: Sunday, April 23 at 2:00pm

For Tickets and Information:

Website: BostonCourtPasadena.org

Or Phone: 626.683.6801

Written by

An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, "Among the Vipers" was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist, three times, in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. Kearney remains focused on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. His stage reviews and social essays can be found at TheTVolution.com and workingauthor.com. Follow him on Facebook.

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