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Theatre in Review: [Veil Widow Conspiracy] (NAATCO/NYTW Next Door)

Edward Chin-Lyn, Karoline Xu, Kimiye Corwin. Photo: William P. Steele.

[Veil Widow Conspiracy] achieves a trifecta of sorts, introducing three different narrative lines, none of them with a compelling situation or characters. The centerpiece of Gordon Dahlquist's drama consists of scenes from a film -- a Chinese-Hollywood co-production along the lines of the Matt Damon epic The Great Wall -- about political intrigue, circa 1922, in Xinjiang, an autonomous region of China that is home to, among others, the Turkic Uyghur minority. It focuses on the daughter of General Yang, a warlord, who has been disfigured in an "accident" involving her husband and a bow and arrow. Soon after, the husband is shot to death in the same park where the previous incident occurred. Suicide would be a convenient excuse, but the evidence militates against it.

There is no obvious suspect -- not one anyone wants to identify, anyway -- so a scheme is proposed: The young widow, known in the script as Heiress, will audition a trio of suitors -- a commander, a deputy, and a prince -- for the role of second husband. (She wears a veil over her face, hence the title.) As part of the wooing, each suitor promises to indict for murder one of the others. Adding to the tension is the constant presence of General Yang's Uyghur mistress, who acts as a kind of duenna -- although one of her skills involves offering hair-raising accounts of the victim's wounds. That these events unfold with indecent haste is not lost on a couple of observers. A Russian colonel hanging out in General Yang's retinue wonders, "Is it necessary for her to remarry so soon?" The vice censor, acting as overseer, replies leeringly, "Unfilled holes -- by which I mean the succession -- give people ideas."

This narrative thread is loaded with plot points that are left hanging -- not least the fact that the visiting colonel is hiding out from the Soviet Army -- and the situation, as depicted, is thoroughly murky, with each of the characters involved in obscure power plays, and dialogue that sounds meaningful but communicates very little. (The issue of Uyghurs and their relationship to the Chinese power structure is mentioned several times but explored not at all.) It isn't clear if the director, Aneesha Kudtarkar, has encouraged her cast to give stilted, bad-movie performances, but if so, she has succeeded magnificently. The line readings are wooden and heavy with insinuation.

At one point, the action freezes and the cast and crew of the film, which is being shot in 2010, emerge in modern dress to give the sorts of interviews found as extras on DVD releases. They all indulge in the usual nonsense about their creative visions, some of which is amusingly captured by the playwright. (You can feel the cast's relief at being allowed to speak like real people.) The action takes a fraught turn, however, when a pair of government apparatchiks shows up to shut down the production, based on the vaguely articulated notion that the character of the prince is some kind of libel on the Chinese people. These scenes lack suspense -- we have been told in a prologue that the completed film exists -- and are overloaded with clotted dialogue, much of it assigned to the film's producer.

Commenting on his plan to save the film by adding a nude love scene between the heiress and the mistress -- never mind that such activities are prohibited by the Chinese censors - the producer notes that only female nudity is prized in the West, adding, "Male nudity -- the goods -- generally taboo. 98%. However you parse it: Valorized prurience, to be seen is to be judged, for a patriarch to exhibit flaccidity -- or not -- etcetera -- we project, literally, a world where women's bodies exist and men's do not, to prevent an exposure culturally agreed to be just too much." The actor Bruce McKenzie struggles to deliver such mouthfuls, but it's a losing battle.

To be fair, a production assistant opines in much the same fashion: "I get why actors never watch their own films, the moment -- the work - is an entirely different experience from what comes out the other side, reality versus mediation. Which, I knew that, but being in Xinjiang, everything I saw kept driving that same point home: This now does not equal what you will describe later -- what you shoot won't convey or capture. You have to choose -- be one with the act or be one with the telling. But you know, every narrative is a metaphor. Every frame is an exclusion." This leads to a speech about his interest in local carpet-making techniques.

If such gusts of wind aren't enough, the action is bookended by a framing device, set in Brooklyn in 2035; the playwright has availed himself of one of those off-the-rack apocalyptic futures, filled with allusions to blackouts and roving soldiers in gas masks. Xiao loves the film discussed above, but, apparently, the grid has collapsed, so, unable to show it, he recounts the plot to Mei, his girlfriend. He gets a chilly reception from Mei, who has no use for fiction: "If you say there's a happy ending to a horrible story of loneliness and disfigurement and a bunch of total assholes -- and I believe you -- then all you've really done is suggest I bide my time in my own world of horrible everything because there's hope for everything to work out fine. Which only always plays into the hands of the assholes happy for me and every other person to curl up and keep taking it." It's safe to say that [Veil Widow Conspiracy] contains not a single line that resembles normal human speech.

The hard-working cast -- all of whom are double- and triple-cast -- is largely lumbered by the things they are given to say, but James Seol cheerfully exudes cynicism as the prince and Karoline Xu is notably cagey as both the mistress and the government production liaison. The production looks good, especially Yu-Hsuan Chen's set, which begins in a narrow space and opens up to reveal the Heiress' boudoir, with its red drapes and screens depicting green-and-gold peacocks. The costume designer, Reza Behjat's lighting effectively conjures each of the play's levels of reality. Frederick Kennedy's sound design includes some effective bits of Chinese music paired with passages of movie scoring in the John Williams style.

Exactly what this tripartite tale means to say is left obscure: It is loaded with possibilities -- the fate of minorities in Chinese autonomous regions, Western appropriation of Eastern culture, the collaboration between the Chinese government and capitalist Hollywood, the fate of women in pre-modern China, and whether the world is going to hell in a handcart. But even when Dahlquist manages to focus on an issue, it is obscured by his oratorical obscurantism. [Veil Widow Conspiracy] is a complex dramatic construction, but it is uninhabited by recognizable characters or comprehensible ideas. --David Barbour

(19 June 2019)

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