Gordon Dahlquist’s [Veil Widow Conspiracy] is a challenging work—cerebral, complicated, extravagant in language and scope. Some people may find it affected, and it does seem at times to revel in its own complexity. (Also, what’s with those brackets in the title?) [VWC]’s ambition is sometimes reminiscent of Tom Stoppard’s work, and there are certain touches of Stoppardian humor in the writing. (Don’t, though, expect an uncontrollable attack of guffaws.)
The play is described in press materials as being “built around nested versions” of a true story from 1922, set in the Xinjiang province in western China. It’s a tale of political intrigue, focused on an heiress—a general’s daughter named Yang Chùjù (Kimiye Corwin)—whose husband has died suspiciously from a gunshot wound. Was it suicide? Murder? Three men vie for the widow’s hand in marriage in an odd courtship ritual. Part of the strangeness is due to the fact that the widow always wears a veil, concealing a face disfigured in an incident involving a bow and arrow. The suitors, it turns out, are also suspects in the death of the heiress’s husband. So, for that matter, are Yang Chùjù herself and Miss Hassan (Karoline Xu), the general’s mistress, who becomes Yang Chùjù’s companion/attendant.
This complicated story is only a small part of Dahlquist’s play. Another part deals with the making of a 2010 feature film based on the 1922 events—a co-production of Chinese and American filmmakers. All goes relatively smoothly until the Chinese contingent suggests that one of the suitors in the story, Prince Li (James Seol), is being depicted in a way that seems to allude in a negative way to China’s current leader, President Xi. To the American filmmakers’ alarm and disgust, production is shut down until a way is found to revamp the story in order to satisfy the Chinese.There’s a final, third level to the play. In a prologue and epilogue, a Chinese-American couple living in a hellish dystopian Brooklyn in 2035 discuss the now quarter-century-old film. The man, Xiao (Aaron Yoo), has seen the movie long before and wants to describe it to the woman, Mei (Xu), who insists that she values truth over fiction.
The play explores the ways in which narrative is shaped and reshaped by a variety of factors. It also questions the wisdom of relying on stories to provide hope or closure. Mei, in the play’s last scene, objects to the idea of a happy ending, which, she says “only plays into the hands of the assholes happy for me and every other person to curl up and keep taking it.”
Whether or not you’re thrilled by Dahlquist’s dramaturgy, you may enjoy the production which has been sensitively directed by Aneesha Kudtarkar. The scenes depicting the making of the film are especially well-played, although Dahlquist’s filmmakers sound, at times, more like academicians than Hollywood folk. Also, it’s not always clear whether we’re watching the actors filming the scenes or viewing scenes from the finished film. (Sometimes “soundtrack” music—supplied by sound director Frederick Kennedy—suggests the latter, but at other times, the scene breaks off with a “cut-and-print” kind of cue. So, quite probably, the ambiguity is intentional.The set designer (Yu-Hsuan Chen) and lighting designer (Reza Behjat) have obviously worked collaboratively to create some effective—and often beautiful—stage pictures. Loops of light are a striking visual leitmotif throughout the show. Costume designer Mariko Ohigashi was given a particularly challenging assignment: imagining garments for three distinctly different worlds. She has delivered the period costumes of the original story (with help from Makoto Osada), the T-shirts with production titles that are worn on the film set, and the simple windbreakers that appear in the futuristic scenes—and she’s done it all with both nuance and flair.
All cast members play multiple roles in this ensemble piece. In addition to the aforementioned actors are Edward Chin-Lyn, Bruce McKenzie and David Shih. Obviously, any given actor will be more suited for one role than another. Xu, however, is especially good in each of her three roles (In addition to Mei and Miss Hassan, she portrays the stern Chinese “liaison” in the 2010 scenes.) Other outstanding turns come from Chin-Lyn as the haughty Commander (one of the suitors in the 1922 scenes) and McKenzie as the romantic/cynical film producer.
[Veil Widow Conspiracy] (through July 6, 2019)
National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO)
Next Door@NYTW, 79 East 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.nytw.org
Running time: one hour and 50 minutes without an intermission