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Golden Shield

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - May 17, 2022

Fang Du, Cindy Cheung, and Ruibo Qian
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
Golden Shield has a lot on its mind–too much, perhaps. Anchuli Felicia King's new drama at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage 1 concerns itself with, on the one hand, the unholy alliances of corrupt governments and equally corrupt corporations; and, on the other, the fraying relationship of two Chinese-American sisters, Julie (Cindy Cheung), a well-meaning but overzealous lawyer fighting the corporate bastards, and Eva (Ruibo Qian), a high-priced call girl when she's not a Chinese-American translator, which she becomes for Julie. King has salient things to say on both topics, and some of Golden Shield crackles. But then there are subplots, ample social comment, and a lot of Mandarin.

Most of the latter is conveyed by the Translator (Fang Du), the loquacious audience-character intermediary, who functions somewhat like the Emcee in Cabaret, until he becomes an actual character late in the action. This play is a full plate. And it's two and a half hours. And it didn't have to be.

"I imagine you're a little confused," Julie says to her legal partner, Richard (Daniel Jenkins), explaining the case she's building against evil (fictional) ONYS Systems. He is, and so are we. It seems ONYS helped the Chinese government build a firewall, ostensibly to crush porn sites, but also to monitor dissidents' activity. Caught up in the cruel monitoring was Li Dao (Michael C. Liu), a tech professor who was able to breach the firewall and help other dissidents do the same. He was caught, imprisoned and abused, returning after almost five years in stir to his wife Mei (Kristen Hung), a spouse so subservient that she never asked where he'd been. Julie sees Li as an ideal plaintiff in a case against ONYS, one to be filed in Texas, where the company is based. Li, in a wheelchair after so many prison beatings and unfamiliar with American legal wrangling and ethics, or lack thereof, is perhaps not that ideal plaintiff.

There's potent drama in this, but King dilutes it with other details. There's the one-dimensional Marshall (Max Gordon Moore), the ambitious president of ONYS's Chinese division, who eventually confesses, "I'm a dick," and that's about the size of it. He's developing a defense in concert with Larry (Jenkins again), a VP, and Jane (a deliciously wicked Gillian Saker), ONYS's British legal officer. Meanwhile, Julie and Eva travel to Beijing to interview Li and gather evidence. There Eva begins a tentative romance with Amanda (Saker again), an Australian advocate for digital freedom. This subplot is completely unnecessary. Somewhat more relevant is the deterioration of Li and Mei's marriage, as Mei learns how Li's firewall subterfuge led to government surveillance, endangering her and their young daughter. And there's Li's emotional testimony on the stand in Dallas and its unfortunate consequences, and the sparring between Julie and Richard over how humanitarian their practice should be, and the financial situations of their firm (failing) and ONYS (great), and shredded documents, and a couple of other things I'm leaving out.

Max Gordon Moore, Kristen Hung, Fang Du
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
But much of that fades into the wings as King explores the troubled history of Julie and Eva. They suffer from, as the Translator puts it, "Eva's suicidal ideation and dysmorphia, as well as Julie's overwhelming emotional paralysis," all of which may be their late mother's fault. What that means is, Julie is reaching out for reconciliation over something that happened at their mother's funeral and some other long-ago skirmishes, and Eva isn't having it. Cheung plays Julie with a steely self-confidence that Julie doesn't deserve, and Qian's Eva is variously feisty, fragile and petulant. They're fun to watch together, and their 11th-hour showdown is a scorching summation of two lifetimes of hurt and disappointment. It just hasn't much to do with the legal and corporate intrigue surrounding it.

King moves the 2006-16 framework all around, shuffling time, playing scenes against one another, and interrupting them with extended essays by the Translator on the structural and philosophical differences between Mandarin and English. (At first they're amusing; they become tiresome, and so does Fang's relentless geniality.) The humor is feeble: Julie, having learned Eva's other vocation, asking, "How's tricks?" The second act is the stronger, dealing mostly with the devastating testimony of Li, whom Liu plays with a touching vulnerability, before drifting back to the Julie-Eva dynamics. The central issue: As governments track down dissidents (or, to their way of thinking, terrorists), and as companies grow rich helping those governments, how much suffering is inflicted on brave soldiers in freedom-of-information wars, like Li? Well, a lot. King waxes eloquent on this point, but she's not telling any casual observer of the nightly news anything they don't know.

The set, by dots, is as gray as dots's set was beige for Morning Sun, on the same stage earlier this season. Fortunately, Jeanette Di-Suk Yew's lighting colors it up a lot, including, appropriately, an all-red wall for Beijing. There's some clever sound design by Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts, including the tinny mic Marshall testifies into, and May Adrales's direction lends some color to the characterizations that won't be found in King's writing.

Golden Shield certainly has its bracing moments, and let's say that King has written a pretty good play that might be better if she decided which to focus on, a justifiable rant about greed and corruption or a look at familial fissures that aren't going to heal. Illuminating both proves something of a struggle.

Golden Shield
Through June 12, 2022
Manhattan Club Theatre at City Center Stage 1, 131 West 55th Street
Tickets online and current performance schedule: