So which story do you want to follow? The hot lesbian affair between two very attractive characters? The fierce sibling rivalry between two sisters sparked by a psychotic mother? Or a lawsuit filed under the Alien Tort Statute by eight Chinese dissidents?
Anchuli Felicia King’s new two-act play, “Golden Shield,” opened Tuesday at MTC’s City Center Stage, and the title refers to a firewall the Chinese government developed to censor the internet in the lead-up to Beijing’s 2008 Summer Olympics. The fictional American tech firm ONYX Systems helped perfect the Golden Shield, apparently with knowledge that the government might use it to crack down on any opposition movement — which leads some American lawyers to craft a novel legal case against the company. While the opening moments of King’s play can seem at times like a tutorial on the intricacies of international law, it’s ultimately worth the effort to play close attention. Much easier to digest but ultimately unsatisfactory are the lesbian affair and the ongoing feud between two adult sisters.
The lawsuit becomes especially riveting in the second act when King visits the home of Li Dao (Michael C. Liu), a man imprisoned and tortured by the Chinese government for his efforts to provide work-arounds for the government’s firewall. A number of writers of recent plays have struggled presenting foreign characters who speak English when we’re asked to imagine they’re really speaking French (“Prayer for the French Republic”), Arabic (“The Vagrant Trilogy”) or Farsi “(Wish You Were Here”). The actors too often end up sounding like what they really are, Americans.
King solves this problem by having Li Dao and his wife (Kristen Hung) speak Mandarin while Fang Du translates for us. Du plays the Translator, and he may be the best narrator of a play since Thornton Wilder gave us the Stage Manager in “Our Town.” He ingratiates the audience even before the play begins by delivering a very long precurtain speech about cellphones and masks and other theater etiquette in Mandarin, then English, before he bounds enthusiastically onto the stage. Between the obvious language differences, the Translator more significantly helps us through a lot of legal jargon and explains cultural differences that simply defy translation. And he does it with style, grace and, above all, humor.
A masterstroke of May Adrales’s direction is that the scenes between Li Dao and his wife are played way upstage in a little box (scenic design by the collective known as dots) that puts the audience in the position of being distant voyeurs. We’re definitely watching an intimate drama that we should not be watching as the Translator further distances us by telling us what’s being said.
The Translator, unfortunately, disappears for much of the affair between Eva (the enormously empathetic Ruibo Qian), an amateur Chinese-American translator, and an Australian lawyer (Gillian Saker) who interviews Li Dao to help put together the legal case. Leading the legal effort is Eva’s sister, Julie (Cindy Cheung). Julie and Eva were born in China, raised by a terrible mother, and are now U.S. citizens of very different economic and social stations in America.
These personal dramas prove a distraction that becomes glaring toward the end of the play. After the legal case has been resolved, and “Golden Shield” comes to its natural conclusion, King provides at least another half dozen endings to tie up all the sibling and lesbian loose ends.
King and Andrales are on the same page with how to present the company that’s incorporated in Texas and hired by the Chinese government to speed up and radically improve the Golden Shield. Those corporates execs at ONYX Systems are played by Max Gordon Moore and Daniel Jenkins, with Moore being the alpha-male in the conference room. This kind of testosterone-driven, profanity-laden, over-the-top portrayal of capitalist greed is why I stopped watching “Succession” after one season.