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A CurtainUp Review
[Veil Widow Conspiracy]
By Dan Rubins

"Any story can be told, but should it be?" — Delegate
Kimiye Corwin and Karoline Xu. (Photo by William P. Steele).
Small shows sometimes resonate in big headlines. During early performances of [Veil Widow Conspiracy] from the National Asian American Theater Company (NAATCO) playing Next Door at New York Theater Workshop, a spate of international news stories broke about the ongoing conflict between the Chinese government and the Uyghur minority ethnic group that's native to the region of Xinjiang. Earlier this week, a UN counterterrorism official came under fierce criticism for visiting the region, where internment camps reportedly house over a million Uyghur Muslims deemed an extremist threat. The New York Times ran a story this week, too, about the stymied attempt of an Uyghur mother and children to seek asylum at the Belgian Embassy in Beijing.

[Veil Widow Conspiracy] takes place in Xinjiang — or, at least, two thirds of it does. The other third occurs in Brooklyn in the year 2035. It's an ambitious play.While playwright Gordon Dahlquist's intellectual intentions are to sweep over time and place, covering all the refractions of an intercultural prism that it can, that leaves the religious rights crisis in Xinjiang in the foggy background.

Dahlquist's winking irony often engages. But the play can also be tiringly heavy on exposition without exposing what it's all really about. Last summer, NAATCO staged a masterful six-hour Henry VI that stripped Shakespeare's complicated three-part history down to its most gripping essentials. The storytelling in this new play feels far more knotty than it needs to be.

The complex story launches in a not-so-distant-dystopia where a couple takes refuge in Flatbush. Xiao (Aaron Yoo) distracts Mei (Karoline Xu) from her anxieties by recounting the plot of a 2010 film named, like Dahlquist's play, [Veil Widow Conspiracy]. It's set in 1922 Xinjiang and revolves around a widowed heiress who wears a veil to hide her disfigurement and offers her hand to the man who can identify her husband's killer. Scenes from the movie are interspersed with the film's on-location shoot. To produce what the director claims is a historically accurate epic, the film crew must overcome the interference from Beijing censors.

Even as the plotline's cultural sensitivity and faithfulness to history are called into question by the 2010 interjections, the 1922 pseudo-fairy tale movie plot remains by far the most engrossing of the three timelines. Kimiye Corwin and Xu make an appealing team as the heiress and her late husband's mistress, now tasked with facilitating the suitors' investigations. David Shih brings a wry coarseness and James Seol a pompous impetuousness to two suitor roles. Despite the frequent interruptions as the play pivots between its timelines, Aneesha Kudtarkar's staging of the unfolding mystery conjures up real suspense. Too bad that isn't matched in either of the other settings.

The oldest timeline is also, significantly, the least wordy. In the 2010 "making-of" plotline, Dahlquist can't quite keep up with the quantity of big ideas he wants his characters to talk about: the political situation in Xinjiang, the film medium's treatment of history and truth, the ethics of censorship, the risky tightrope between standing up for human rights and showing respect to a host nation.

The tensions between the visiting Chinese Americans and the mainland interlocutors, like the skeptical cultural liaison connecting the crew and Beijing (Xu, in the most impressive of her triple-dipped roles), land most sharply. However, those relationships are undermined a bit by the focus on the machinations of the Caucasian American producer (Bruce McKenzie), who seems more a mouthpiece for ideas Dahlquist wants the audience to question than a fully-fledged character. That's despite McKenzie's gregarious performance.

[Veil Widow Conspiracy] sets off the most sparks in the too-rare moments when the connections between timelines emerge clearly. When debates raging on the 2010 movie set begin to have ramifications for how the 1922 story gets told, the play develops more complex, mischievous layers, reminiscent of the most playful, meta moments in Tom Stoppard's Travesties. But the 2035 timeline spouts its own collection of societal ills without ever cohering to the rest of the play. The opening and closing scenes offer a moody vagueness which doesn't help to solidify the already overly dense jungle of ideas dissected in between.

Still, NAATCO's cast performs with the same vigor and skill as the Henry VI company. As in that production, the actors bounce from role to role with variety and good humor: Yoo and Xu, each in three wide-ranging roles, are especially fun to watch. Yu-Hsuan Chen's unfolding set, amassed with screens smoothly gliding between eras, Reza Behjat's futuristic lighting, and Mariko Ohigashi's decade-hopping costumes position the designers as crucial co-storytellers alongside the playwright and director.

Ultimately, however, it's not entirely clear what story we're supposed to walk away thinking about. I ended up wondering whether the possibly post-apocalpytic police state suggested by the scenes in the near-future are meant to represent the current climate in Xinjiang for the Uyghur people. As with a lot of [Veil Widow Conspiracy], I wish I didn't have to guess.

Here are links to Other NAAtCO productions reviewed at Curtainup:
The House of Bernarda Albaa>
Awake and Sing!
href="henry6naatco18.html">Henry VI-Part 1 and 2
Charles Francis Chan Jr.'s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery
Dream Play
Leah's Train

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[Veiled Widow Conspiracy] by Gordon Dahlquist
Directed by Aneesha Kudtarkar
Cast: Edward Chin-Lyn, Kimiye Corwin, Bruce McKenzie, James Seol, David Shih, Karoline Xu, and Aaron Yoo
Set Designer: Yu-Hsuan Chen
Lighting Designer: Reza Behjat
Costume Designer: Mariko Ohigashi
Sound Designer: Frederick Kennedy
Production Stage Manager: Kate Croasdale
Running Time: 1 hr, 55 minutes, no intermission
Next Door at New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street
From 6/08/19; opening 6/17/19; closing 7/0619
Mondays – Saturdays, 7:00; Saturdays, 3:00
Reviewed by Dan Rubins at 6/17 performance

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