Review: In ‘[Veil Widow Conspiracy],’ Time and Truth are Changeable

By Paige Allen
July 3, 2019

What do an urban dystopia, a murder mystery, and a documentary film have in common? About as much as Warlord Era Xinjang, a 2010 movie set, and Brooklyn in 2035. Yet in Gordon Dahlquist’s [Veil Widow Conspiracy], a new play developed and produced by the National Asian American Theatre Company and presented through Next Door at New York Theatre Workshop, these genres and worlds not only coexist but are nested within each other like Russian dolls, at times even bleeding together.

[VWC] begins in a futuristic dystopia of Brooklyn. We look in on a couple, the likable optimist Xiao (Aaron Yoo) and the distressed realist Mei (Karoline Xu), through what feels like a large circular window rimmed by a strip of lights. The details of the surveillance state in which the pair lives are somewhat obscured, but in a good way, like we’re watching the well-written first episode of a sci-fi TV show, one that doesn’t overdo the exposition. We understand the essentials: 1) things are not going well for the world and 2) Xiao is talking to Mei about a DVD they can’t watch, a movie he has seen before but Mei has not. 

The movie, filmed in 2010, is based on true events which happened in the 1920s in Xinjang, officially Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Xiao tells Mei that Xinjang is as far from Beijing as Alaska is from DC and about as big, only with much larger ethnic minorities, notably the Uyghur Muslims, who have always had contentious relationships with the “East.” 

Alarms sound and the lights go out. When the power comes back, the small pod in which Xiao and Mei sit is lit an ominous red. Again, the details of what exactly is happening aren’t clear, but we know it isn’t good. In this semi-darkness, Xiao begins to tell Mei the story of the film as he remembers it.

As he begins, the world opens up. The circle in the center of Chen’s set expands, and we are transported into Warlord Era Xinjang, where we meet a refugee colonel (the Bing Crosby-like Bruce McKenzie) and three suitors—a prince (the splendidly affected James Seol), a commander (the intense and intimidating Edward Chin-Lyn), and a deputy (the skeptical and self-absorbed David Shih)—who are promised control of the region and the hand of the veiled heiress (Kimiye Corwin) if they can discover her husband’s murderer.

Just as we’re getting comfortable, the world shifts once again, and we realize we’ve been watching the filming of the movie Xiao was describing to Mei, the Hollywood murder mystery based on true events. It’s 2010, and the cast and crew are filming on location in Kashgar, a major city in Xinjang that the Chinese government has turned into an intense surveillance state—cameras, bugs, plain clothes police officers, and re-education camps for the Uyghur Muslims of the area. 

Here, in the world outside of the film, the play’s real conflicts emerge: Chinese censors abruptly revoke the Americans’ privileges to film due to potential interpretation of the movie as critical of “Chinese values” (read: symbolically casting their current presence in and treatment of Kashgar, among other things, in an unfavorable light). The film’s producer (McKenzie, now snarky and bold) and director (Chin-Lyn, now reconciliatory) are, to put it mildly, less than pleased.

While these concentric worlds may sound confusing, they are much clearer in performance than on paper. Aneesha Kudtarkar’s directing shines as the style of the actors’ presentation universally changes with the transitions between the world of the film and the “real” world outside of it. Chen’s versatile and beautiful movie set features another circle rimmed by light behind a back curtain, giving us the sense that we could keep moving closer, opening up more windows into other worlds. Behjat’s lighting snaps between the harsh reality of the shoot and the romantic beauty of the film, while sound designer Frederick Kennedy versatilely shifts from the soundscape of a technopolis to a film score reminiscent of Hollywood’s golden age. Mariko Ohigashi’s costumes for the film scenes are exquisite and luxurious, yet it appears they are also easily changeable as the actors quickly transition from their characters in the movie into their “real life” identities.

Dahlquist’s play thus becomes an exploration of the intersection between politics and art, reality and representation, as we shift back and forth between the fictionalized film and the shoot around it, eventually returning to the Brooklyn night when the story is being recalled. Lurking underneath it all is the history upon which the film is supposedly based, much of which can only be speculated.

The nature of truth is up for debate as characters discuss the merits and dangers of fact and fantasy. And we, as the audience, are left wondering what exactly we are witnessing. How much of the film is fabricated from a historical account which is murky at best? How much of the film has been altered for approval by Chinese censors, made an acceptable version of the truth? How much of everything we see—the film, the interviews, the circumstances of the shoot—is being constructed or misremembered in Xiao’s mind? 

Like the heiress herself, [VWC] feels constantly obscured behind a veil of lace. There are moments when the corner lifts up or the light is just right or the fabric presses against the play, and we can make out the outline of its features. Other moments, we are in the dark.

Yet, even with all the missing information, [VWC] feels whole. The people behind the play—the playwright, cast, and creative team—have created entire worlds so we may glimpse them, and we feel the extent of those worlds beyond what we witness, just as Corwin creates a fully realized character without ever showing us her face.

This process of minding the gaps and piecing bits together is exactly what makes [VWC] so exciting to watch. Dahlquist provides just enough information to keep the audience on our toes, ever invested and ever guessing at what lies outside the frame or beyond the circular lens through which we are looking.

BCS-friendliness rating: 5 out of 5 stars

My student rush ticket for [VWC] was $20, available an hour before curtain at the NYTW box office. There were plenty of tickets available for the night I saw the show, so I’d expect rush tickets are fairly easy to come by. In advance, you’d pay $39—still not bad.

Next Door @ NYTW is a small space, so truly anywhere is a good seat, and it’s general admission, so you can choose whether you want to sit on top of the actors in the first row or see more of a wide shot in the last row.


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