“Every narrative is metaphor. Every frame is an exclusion.” The construction of a work of art is an endless series of choices, and when you’re trying to compose a tale meant to be experienced/understood in one setting, like a play or a movie, deciding how to frame–what to exclude–can define the work more than what you decide to put in. NAATCO’s premiere of Gordon Dahlquist’s Veil Widow Conspiracy, with three nested narratives to support, doesn’t quite get the balance right; the frame remains a little out of kilter. Part of this is the script, but a lot also rests on the production.
Intriguingly intricate but ultimately not entirely satisfying, the script is trying to do something really difficult: show us a piece of deeply flawed and politically compromised art (a fictional film set in 1920s China) while also showing us the relationship of its makers (as they shoot in Xinjiang Autonomous Province in 2010) and one fan (describing in 2035 New York, where the technology to view it has been at least temporarily lost) to that art. But it waits too long to tip that hand, hiding the key to understanding the piece too far inside the multiple stories. And of the three stories it traces, only one feels more than surface-deep until too late. Aneesha Kudtarkar’s muddy production, which neither gives each story a unique stylistic spin nor finds resonance in the ways they interlock, doesn’t help.
All three stories grapple with the same issues, in the end, or navigate different facets of the same inquiry: the function of story and its relationship to reality; the meaning of the act of storytelling in cultures with different relationships to “truth”; the power of stories to shape perception and thus for the fictional narrative to shape the real; the heaviness of metaphor and its weight upon our attempts to make sense of the world in which we live. But without fully fleshed-out fictional worlds, the issues start to seem top-heavy.
The frame story recalls Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, which looked at how an episode of The Simpsons became the cultural touchstone of a post-apocalyptic culture. Here, “apocalypse” is perhaps too strong, but whatever catastrophes have afflicted New York between our present day and the play’s opening setting in 2035, they’ve left a young couple, Xiao (Aaron Yu) and Mei (Karoline Xu), marooned in their Brooklyn “capsule”/apartment in a world with sharp restrictions on travel, limited electricity, questionable air and water. They’re telling each other stories of cultural artifacts they loved as a way of sharing intimacy. She seems suspicious of fictional narratives generally; he’s fixated on this movie, set and filmed in Xinjiang, China–China itself being a place some of his family members visited in the time before, but where it’s no longer possible for ordinary people to travel, even with relatives there.
Xinjiang itself quickly becomes a metaphor, nearly a mythical place: the setting for the film; the frontier for twentieth-century cowboy capitalism; the exemplar of everything the blinkered West doesn’t know about China; and a source of rich history–suitable, of course, to be mined for commodification, if not exploitation, by Hollywood.
The second of the play’s narratives is the film itself, set in the Chinese Roaring Twenties–a twisty mix of murder mystery, political thriller, and the plot trope of three suitors competing for the hand of a maiden, in this case a widowed heiress (Kimiye Corwin). The suitors are a military commander (Edward Chin-Lyn), a well-placed government functionary (David Shih), and a prince cum nascent robber baron (James Seol), each tasked with uncovering the truth behind the death of the heiress’s first husband in order to gain her hand. The plot is tidily schematic, wearing its symbolism on its sleeve, but the characters are thin. (I have no doubt this is intentional, but a big chunk of theatrical real estate is given over to something that feels, again no doubt intentionally, like an algorithm-built piece of Hollywood fluff. Dahlquist takes great care to work out the complex internal logic of the movie’s plot, but I suspect it would be more satisfying if he didn’t; we don’t really have investment in those characters and I think the purpose of that narrative could be equally well served with less of it.)
The third, perhaps inevitably but also most compellingly, is the behind-the-scenes intrigue involved in shooting a big-budget film, designed to play equally well in foreign markets as in the US, under the thumb of a repressive government’s minders in a politically dicey area of the world. In this making-of section, the play really comes to life. We start to see how the film’s Asian American participants–one actor (David Shih), the costume designer (Kimiye Corwin), and the director (Edward Chin-Lyn)–navigate being in China as Americans of Chinese descent; how Hollywood intersects with the Chinese government to wrangle the political aims of both in making this picture. It’s again perhaps inevitable that, in a play at least partially about American culture’s (America, too, but specifically American cultural artifacts) perception of China, the dominant voice and the standout character becomes the film producer (Bruce McKenzie), played by the only non-Asian performer in the cast. (He doubles as a Russian military officer who plays a role in the in-film murder investigation.) The producer has to go head-to-head with the production’s Chinese government liaison (Karoline Xu), who seems like a colorless, robotic functionary but clearly has ideas of her own about art.
It’s never easy to create a play of ideas–which this is, unquestionably–and also yoke them to characters and a story that propels itself forward. Harder still, of course, when you’re trying to serve three stories at once, in the service of one set of ideas. As the second half of the play picks up steam, it almost all comes together, but the film narrative still weighs down the piece.
As is generally the case with NAATCO’s work, the acting is solid; McKenzie is a standout (though more as the producer, a player par excellence who oozes calculation, than as the Russian colonel); Kimiye Corwin, as the veiled heiress and the film’s costume designer, and David Shih, as the blustering deputy minister within the film and the genially shallow actor outside of it, convey the shift from story to story particularly well. James Seol, the polished yet menacing prince, stands out within the film while Karoline Xu’s Chinese government liaison draws on deep vein of extremely satisfying irony.
The production is a little clunky; the transitions between scenes are perhaps necessary to “reset” the frame, but weaving and layering them into the space in a more dynamic way would have helped. The static quality of the scenes within the film is also no doubt intentional–and I believe meant to call attention to the film’s cynical underpinnings, its genesis as a purely commercial product rather than a work of art in itself–but it’s hard to pull off in live theater, where it needs to remain engaging enough to hold the audience’s attention while still signaling its own sort of shallowness. (And while I’m not sure it would be entirely possible to convey both the film’s 1920 setting and the lazy reproduction of that by a 2010 film crew, the lightly abstract but not really stylized production elements don’t really convey either.) The frame story, too, doesn’t quite come to life; Xiao and Mei are philosophical placeholders more than humans until the play’s very last moments.
It would no doubt be harder still to play more with the sharp lines between the three stories, to see them intersect and interpenetrate one another–but I think it would be more interesting.