By Samuel L. Leiter
Gordon Dahlquist’s [Veil Widow Conspiracy] is a dramatically veiled construct embedding three stories, one within the other, like a play-within-a-play-within-a play, or, more appropriately, a set of Chinese boxes. Produced at Next Door@NYTW by the estimable National Asian American Theater Company (NAATCO), and directed by Aneesha Kudtarkar, it’s confusing, verbally inflated, cerebral, and emotionally uninvolving; it’s also well-acted and has enough substance to suggest the play it might have been. Its socio-cultural-political-artistic features apart, the play dabbles in issues of truth and lies, reality and illusion or fantasy.
It begins with a young, Chinese American couple, Xiao (Aaron Yoo) and Mei (Karoline Xu), huddled in a tiny “capsule” apartment in Brooklyn in a dystopian 2035, where electric power is iffy, alarms are frequent, and fear of being spied on is pervasive. They’re visible on the other side of a downstage scenic wall from which a large circle, outlined with a narrow band of light, has been cut, as if we’re viewing them through a lens.
As they reflect on their memories and mention that China can no longer be visited, Xiao describes a 2010 movie based on a 1922 incident in the Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, a place of ethnic diversity, very far from Beijing. The majority population is Uyghur, not Han, the dominant native Chinese ethnicity. A crossroads between East and West, it’s also different from what’s conventionally considered Chinese. The film, though, can’t be seen any longer because of endemic tech problems.
Soon, the lens opening widens as the wall splits to either side, showing a scene set in Kashi (a.k.a. Kashgar), where we watch the enactment of the film’s story. It’s about a warlord’s daughter, the Heiress (Kimiye Corwin), whose face, disfigured by an arrow, forces her to wear a veil. Her Turandot-like situation requires her to choose, from a group of three men, the one who’ll succeed her late husband.
He, for his part, was murdered during a hunting party, and much of the overextended narrative concerns a search for his killer, which may be any of the rival suitors. They are Prince Li (James Seol), a rapacious businessman; the Commander (Edward Chin-Lyn), a military officer; and the Deputy (David Shih), a government functionary. A fourth man, Colonel Gasparov (Bruce McKenzie), a Soviet officer, does much of the detective work. Also involved is the Mistress (Karoline Xu), the Uyghur concubine of the Heiress’s powerful father, General Yang, who rules the region.
The story being enacted, though, turns out to be the movie earlier referred to, seen during the process of its production. This is clear when the filming stops so the action can shift to the sound stage where the actors drop their movie characters and become the actors as their off-screen selves. They include the Producer (Bruce McKenzie, who plays the Colonel); the Director (Edward Chin-Lyn, who plays the Commandant), who also wrote the script; and the Liaison (Karoline Xu, who doubles as both Mei and the Mistress), who represents the Ministry of Culture’s positions on what can and cannot be shown in movies (like nudity, which precipitates a speech by the Producer on pubic hair!).
The metatheatrical, off-screen material, mainly involving the Producer, the Director, the Designer (Kimye Corwin, who plays the Heiress), and the Liaison, touches on multiple topics. Among them are censorship, cultural appropriation, liberal viewpoints being privileged over conservative ones, Hollywood orientalism, the Chinese privileging of metaphor over representation, ownership of the ways in which stories are told, authenticity in historical recreations, and so on.
Further befuddling the overwritten play are the frequent intrusions of characters speaking direct address monologues, either pseudo-poetic or prolix, academic statements couched in an odd mixture of the prosaic and the theoretical. The play closes back in Brooklyn where whatever we’ve been hearing becomes murkier as the conclusion approaches.
None of the three stories is particularly well dramatized, even the murder mystery plot being shrouded in artificial dialogue and cardboard characters. And the need for the framing device of the Brooklyn couple is puzzling. At the same time, the actors provide theatrical vigor and intelligence. Kudtarker’s direction obviously helped. There are, however, flaws in her physical staging, which is often stiff and unimaginative.
Yu-Hsuan Chan’s low-budget scenic work, making clever use of faux-coromandel screens, is fine, as are the contributions of lighting designer Reza Behjat, costumer Mariko Ohigashi, and sound designer Frederick Kennedy. But none of this compensates for the boredom that settles in well before Dahlquist puts the lid on his intermissionless, 115-minute, nest of Chinese boxes.
[Veil Widow Conspiracy]. Through Through July 6 at Next Door@NYTW/Fourth Street Theatre (83 East 4th Street). One hour, fifteen minutes with no intermission. www.nytw.org
Photos: William P. Steele