Review: Golden Shield is about Chinese Communists and their American capitalist accomplices
One of the most powerful myths of recent decades is that trade with the West would invariably lead to a freer and more democratic China. If Xi Jinping’s cult, China’s draconian “zero-Covid” policies, and mass detention of Uyghurs haven’t completely debunked that notion for you, chances are you own a factory in Shenzhen. Or maybe trade with China has made you so rich that you don’t care about the consequences, embracing a kind of amoral libertarianism to justify your complicity in the crimes of the Chinese Communist Party.
That certainly seems to be the case with Marshall McLaren (Max Gordon Moore), president of China operations for giant tech company ONYS Systems and Anchuli Felicia King’s chief villain. golden shield, which is now making its U.S. premiere with the Manhattan Theater Club at New York City Center. His greatest pride is to make the Internet in China “four times faster”. He did this by decentralizing the “Great Firewall”, which allowed the government to spy on its citizens more effectively – and thus enriched himself.
But at least some of ONYS’ reported $50 billion in annual revenue appears to be in jeopardy when U.S. attorney Julie Chen (Cindy Cheung) files a lawsuit on behalf of a group of Chinese dissidents targeted by the government in using ONYS technology. “Foreign citizens are suing a multinational. In US District Court,” she tries to sell her suspicious partner, Richard (Daniel Jenkins). “It is the white whale of international humanitarian law.”
Like Captain Ahab, Julie pursues her white whale with maniacal abandon. Most likely to be speared is her own sister, Eva (an extremely vulnerable Ruibo Qian), whom she invites to China as a translator. Julie’s Mandarin is almost non-existent, and it seems like a great bonding experience just months after the death of their tyrannical Chinese mother.
Together they travel to Yingcheng to meet Professor Li Dao (Michael C. Liu), who was left in a wheelchair after five years in custody for the crime of showing people how to get under the firewall. Li is Julie’s star witness, but his desire to protect his wife (Kristen Hung) from the full extent of her abuse proves to be a weak point in the case – and Julie has little tolerance for weakness.
King has written gripping drama in the age of globalization, with characters bouncing between Beijing, Melbourne and Palo Alto. She lucidly conveys complex technical issues of international law and online infrastructure, using them as a basis for examining more timeless questions about ambition and our responsibility to others (especially our own brothers and sisters).
The director May Adrales delivers a staging that is as rhythmic as it should be, with a rapid succession of scenes materializing on a set that looks like a design office or a modern lawyer, but full of surprises (design by the scenic collective, dots). Sara Ryung Clement also finds plenty of room for individual expression within the confines of professional attire. Lighting designer Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew and sound designers Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts help transform the scene so that we’ll zip across the planet. Adrales takes a script that could easily be a screenplay and manages to make it delightfully theatrical.
King presents several scenes entirely or partially in Mandarin, with a mysterious character called “The Translator” always on stage to help us understand. Played by Fang Du with a mischievous charm and just a hint of magic, he is reminiscent of the emcee in Cabaret — both omniscient and part of the action. Not only does he translate from Chinese, but he often conveys the subtext of conversations in English, forging a relationship with the audience that we can never fully trust, but rely on nonetheless.
The other seven cast members keep us engaged with smart, nimble performances: after playing a tall, bossy, big-haired communist (Tom Watson wigs), Hung is virtually unrecognizable as Li’s reserved but pushy wife. Gillian Saker also fulfills a dual role as an Australian campaigner and as ONYS’ Chief Legal Adviser. Liu gives one of the most emotionally heartbreaking performances of the year as a teacher. And in Julie, Cheung powerfully and terrifyingly embodies a compelling anti-hero for New York audiences – a daughter boss lawyer on the right side of the story who is generally indifferent to the collateral damage caused by her righteous crusade.
He’s certainly a more complicated figure than McLaren, whom Moore nonetheless bestows on the kind of detailed, lingering idiosyncrasies in your memory that make him such a perfect stage villain (as he was in describe the night playing a very different type of villain). He stares madly into the distance as he has a revelation, drunk on the elixir of his own genius. Impatience flows from his smoky voice as he tries to share his insight with lesser mortals. And he tramples like a grumpy toddler when he doesn’t get what he wants right away. McLaren is indiscriminately racist, emotionally rickety and downright greedy – like so many others in today’s American ruling class.
The events of golden shield take place from 2006 to 2016, which sounds suspiciously like a more innocent time. As our country adjusts its relationship with the increasingly belligerent regime in Beijing, we must hold a certain contempt for its American accomplices.