Examining the ethics of business, government, law, and personal relationships in Off-Broadway’s ‘Golden Shield’ at MTC

In 2016, a group of eight Chinese dissidents filed a class-action lawsuit against an American-based IT corporation for personal damages resulting from its collusion with the Chinese government on The Golden Shield Project, which manages the Bureau of Public Information and Network Security Supervision, and the internet censorship and surveillance sub-project called the Great Firewall of China. That real-life international drama inspired Australian playwright Anchuli Felicia King’s Golden Shield, a fictionalized account of the court case, its background, and aftermath, now making its American debut in a limited Off-Broadway engagement with Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center.

Max Gordon Moore, Kristen Hung, Fang Du, and Daniel Jenkins. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

The provocative non-linear narrative is presented as a series of short vignettes set in the US, China, and Melbourne from 2006-16, interspersed with direct-address commentary by The Translator, a likeable character who brings humor and insight to the story, and acknowledges that his work includes as much interpretation as it does verbatim translation. It’s a truth that can, and does, lead to problems, when the prosecuting attorney Julie Chen hires her younger sister Eva as translator for her pre-trial questioning of key Chinese complainant and witness Li Dao, setting off a chain of painful personal and professional consequences.

Directed by May Adrales, the riveting production examines the ethics involved in business, government, and the law with an engaging mix of laughter, anger, and intrigue, skillfully delivered by an excellent eight-person cast. The outstanding Fang Du takes the lead as The Translator, who also serves as the expressive and witty narrator, gently illuminating the difficulties of communicating accurately when there is no exact translation from Mandarin to English and explaining what the characters really mean to say with both their words and their body language.

Fang Du, Cindy Cheung, and Ruibo Qian. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Cindy Cheung and Ruibo Qian star as the estranged sisters Julie and Eva, whose recently deceased tyrannical mother caused emotional damage to both, exacerbated by Julie leaving China, and her ten-year-old sibling, for college. Cheung is believably enterprising, driven, and impatient as the lawyer, motivated more by the greater cause for which she fights than concern for her client, determined to win at all costs, and repeatedly deriding and questioning the less accomplished Eva about how she makes a living and if it’s legal. It’s a secret that is later revealed and sheds some light on Qian’s self-reliant but broken and uncommunicative character, in a sub-plot that lengthens the running time and contributes little to the central theme (as is the case with her drunken bar encounter with activist Amanda Carlson, played with compassion by Gillian Saker).

Max Gordon Moore is hateful and ill-tempered as the greedy and conniving businessman Marshall McLaren, President of Chinese Operations, who pushes for a bigger and more lucrative contract with the Chinese government, despite the moral issues associated with the Firewall project. He is then intentionally and infuriatingly evasive on the witness stand after advising – along with the company’s strategically dishonest Chief Legal Officer Jane Bolling (also played by Saker) – his colleague and Vice President Larry Murdoch to destroy evidence of their dealings. Murdoch is portrayed with equivocal timidity by Daniel Jenkins, who doubles as Richard Warren, Julie’s partner in the law firm and co-counsel on the case, whom she neglects to consult on a major decision, and who also harbors a big secret of his own.

Kristen Hung, Michael C. Liu, Ruibo Qian, Gillian Saker, and Cindy Cheung. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Rounding out the compelling cast are Michael C. Liu as the Chinese professor and dissident Li Dao, who is committed to his activist beliefs and suffers severe physical abuse and imprisonment for them, and Kristen Hung in the antithetical roles of the cold no-nonsense Chinese Deputy Minister Gao Shenwei, who negotiates the Firewall contract with McLaren and Murdoch, and Li Dao’s concerned and loving wife Huang Mei, who is devastated by his activism and his decision to testify in the US, based on a deliberate mistranslation by the sympathetic Eva.

An efficient post-modern scenic design by dots, with sleek openwork panels, easily transitions from one international locale to the next. Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew’s lighting and original music and sound by Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts accentuate the drama (the apprehension of Li Dao is especially harrowing), and costumes by Sara Ryung Clement, with hair and wig design by Tom Watson, capture the professions and status of the characters, from the fine-tailored suits and grooming of the lawyers, businessmen, and officials to the more casual styles of Eva and Amanda.

The repercussions of the final court verdict are seen in short follow-up scenes of personal interactions between pairs of characters that feel anti-climactic and could use some tightening. But they serve to show the range of reactions and psychology of the flawed personalities, whose behavior, like language, doesn’t always translate well, but speaks volumes.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 20 minutes, including an intermission.

Golden Shield plays through Sunday, June 12, 2022, at Manhattan Theatre Club, performing at New York City Center, Stage 1, 131 West 55th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $39-89), call (212) 581-1212, or go online. Everyone must show proof of COVID-19 vaccination to enter the building and must wear a mask at all times when inside.


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