Playwright Gordon Dahlquist’s [Veil Widow Conspiracy] wields those unnecessary, pretentious brackets as a warning, perhaps, that there’s a lot of extraneous information in his overstuffed 75-minute play. Set in three locations, the National Asian American Theatre Company production opens on a couple who are seemingly sheltering from some dire events outside, primarily conveyed through sirens. It’s an apocalyptic Brooklyn, but too briefly and sketchily presented to capture one’s interest.
As they sip tea from vacuum-insulated coffee cups, the man, Xiao (Aaron Yu), informs his companion, Mei (Karoline Xu), about China’s Xinjiang Province with heavy-duty exposition:
Xinjiang Autonomous Region is right above Tibet Autonomous Region. Fewer mountains, but more ethnicities. Uyghur, Kazak, Muslim, Buddhist. Only 10% Han. Add to that Xinjiang is four times the size of California, and as far from Beijing as L.A. from New York.
The description is a prelude to their watching a DVD of a well-known Chinese story that takes place in 1922, set in the exotic splendor of the prerevolutionary China of Western fantasy.
Mei: In 1922 there are warlords?
Xiao: It’s the Warlord Era. But isolated, 3,000 miles from the east, from anywhere.
Mei: Do the women wear those ’20s dresses, like Jazz Age, or do they wear cheongsams?
The answer is the latter, and both the costumes of Mariko Ohigashi and set designer Yu-Hsuan Chen’s peacock-laden screens and a scroll settee magically evoke the sumptuousness on what must have been a shoestring budget. The scenery is appropriate for essentially a fairy tale. An Heiress has been disfigured by an arrow and wears a veil; her husband has more recently died in the same park where her accident occurred.
Yet her father, a famous general who is still alive, has given her control of her destiny. “The new husband of Yang Chuju will possess title to her fortune and stand heir to the whole of her father’s, including the governance in perpetuity of Greater Xinjiang,” the Vice Censor advises a trio of suitors as he presents the contract they must sign. The veiled widow now seeks a new husband, but demands that the eventual winner of her hand solve the murder of her late husband—though most people doubt it was murder.
The set-up is intriguing, certainly, and echoes Western myth—from Paris judging the most beautiful of three goddesses to Shakespeare’s three suitors in The Merchant of Venice. The prospective husbands include James Seol’s suave Prince Li, a derby-wearing Westernized businessman who, it is thought, merely wants to gain access to the riches of Xinjiang, notably uranium. Competing with him are Edward Chin-Lyn’s authoritarian Commander Ma and David Shih’s Deputy, traditionally dressed but coarse. Further court hangers-on are Yoo’s Vice Censor (all the actors double in roles), a Russian colonel, Gasparov (Bruce McKenzie), and, crucially, the mistress of the widow’s father—and husband—Mirighul (Xu again), now the veiled heiress’s companion.
But a further layer to the play arises, as the fairy tale abruptly terminates and one discovers that the characters are in fact making a movie about the story. Whether one can remember through the information overload that the modern Brooklynites were about to watch a DVD is dubious, but the Director (Chin-Lyn) and Producer (McKenzie) of the DVD suddenly move the action to the 1990s as they debate the suspension of film production with their Communist “liaison” (Xu).
The Director says, “Let us discuss metaphor” and the Liaison responds, “The transaction of metaphor is a primary teaching tool for social theory. Through metaphor we locate the social and political essence of poetry and stories, including films and plays and operas and more recently cartoons.”
Amid the plentiful didacticism and the shifting time periods, let alone solving the Machiavellian murder mystery, there’s little breathing room for real people to emerge; they become mouthpieces and stick figures (as Dahlquist’s dramatis personae, e.g., Director, Vice Censor, etc., suggests; real names emerge only in the dialogue). Still, Xu is outstanding throughout, particularly as the laconic Mistress. She puts a dry spin on the words “Just…tea” that provide more pleasure than disquisitions about subjects like “valorized prurience,” no matter how packed with information they are. Seol’s Prince Li is also genuinely interesting to watch, and McKenzie is suitably frustrated both as Gasparov and the Director. But some of the other performances are noticeably weaker.
Dahlquist clearly likes his subject matter, probably too well, yet director Aneesha Kudtarkar has been unable to give the ponderous discussions much life. Although audiences may leave with more knowledge of China than they had, it will be from scavenging a singularly jumbled drama.
The NAATCO production of [Veil Widow Conspiracy] runs through July 6 at Next Door@NYTW (79 E. 4th St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Saturday. For tickets and information, call (212) 460-5475, or visit the box office or the website at nytw.org.