In the service of confronting anti-Asian racism and the bias against mental illness, Catch as Catch Can by Mia Chung, directed by Daniel Aukin widely misses. The one-act play at Playwrights Horizons, reignited from a run at The New Ohio Theatre in 2018 complicates structurally and thematically. Unfortunately, the lack of forthright presentation skews the power of the messages and leaves one questioning the characterizations. Instead, one should be questioning the impact of parental conditioning on learned behavior.
Our conditioning is how we abide by family roles, gender, ethnic biases, unless we choose to overcome them. Conditioning importantly impacts our psychological stability. This theme, if clearly presented by the playwright is prescient for us today. However, much was lost in the presentation of this production at Playwrights Horizons until November 20th.
Three actors fluidly portray six roles which is easy enough. The roles they illuminate are of different ages and genders and there’s the rub. Jon Norman Schneider and Rob Yang at the top of the very long one-act (1 hour 50 minutes), portray mothers Roberta Lavecchia and Theresa Phelan. In subsequent scenes they play their sons Robbie Lavecchia and Tim Phelan. Cindy Cheung portrays father Lon Lavecchia and daughter Daniela Lavecchia.
What is the point of the actors portraying characters who are cross-gender, cross ages while they, too, belie the ethnicity of their characters (Italian and Irish)? In watching Cindy Cheung portray father Lon Lavecchia, and daughter Daniela Lavecchia, we see how the character has been influenced by her father’s parenting. In watching Jon Norman Schneider portray mother Roberta Lavecchia and son Robbie Lavecchia, we understand the mother’s influence on her son. Likewise, as we watch Rob Yang portray mother Theresa Phelan and son Tim Phelan, we understand how Tim’s nature and behaviors are conditioned and influenced by his mother Theresa. Wouldn’t the dialogue reveal this without all the crosses to bear?
It took me about 3 minutes to understand that the effeminate mannerisms and strained voices of Jon Norman Schneider as Roberta and Rob Yang as Theresa were stylized to convey the impact of these women on their children. This becomes clearer when we later see the doubling up portrayals of the actors playing the sons, as “chips off the old maternal block.”
The first scene between the two mothers sitting and having tea played more for humor than for authenticity. However, I found myself forced to listen acutely to the dialogue to understand that neighbors Roberta and Theresa are concerned about their sons and that is a point of mutual shared interest. Their sons have been with Korean American women. Roberta is comfortable enough not to disguise her bias against son Robbie’s wife, who he divorced two years prior. On the other hand, Theresa is concerned that her son Tim is going to be engaged to a very pretty Koren American woman who looks “like a doll” and has small hands. We discover later that Tim who has severe emotional issues has been lying to his mother about this woman, perhaps to reassure her he is “normal,” for she can’t accept another way for him to be.
The playwright has sought to stylize the entire foray into subjects which perhaps should be dealt with honestly rather than to obscure them. However, even in neighborly relationships and in families, so much occurs sub rosa. In all human relationships behavior is obscured. And sometimes we learn more from what is not said than what is. That is one message of the play, it would seem, as an outcropping of the playwright’s intentional doubling and mixing of ages and genders and also including two Asian actors. The question remains, does the mixing of genders, ages and ethnicities elucidate or befuddle? And to what extent does confusion enhance one’s passion in expressing one’s message?
Stripping away the artificial and stylized constructs, the authentic action which is most on point is the preparation for the family reunion. where we have already seen where the food and last names identify ethnicity for the Italian Lavecchias and Irish Phelans. We become engaged as the actors hang the Christmas lights, get the chaffing dishes and organize for the large buffet, that is sprinkled with humor, including the thought that a friend’s vegan teenager will not be eating Mrs. Lavecchia’s wonderful meatballs and sausages. The scene is in the congeniality of the season until a monkey wrench is thrown in when Tim and Daniela go shopping to pick up additional supplies. Tim kisses Daniela, truths are revealed. The moment is incredibly awkward and sets us up for Tim’s later emotional and psychological breakdown. Cheung and Yang do a bang-up job with this scene as a lead in to the strongest part of the play, Tim’s illness.
The last part of the one-act is the clearest. Tim’s profound depression which he’s been hiding from his mother is acute. Friends also miss it and can really do little to help. In the conversation he has with his mother that moves from response to comment, Yang’s portrayal of mother and son is superb and differentiated. Theresa’s unemotional delivery segues into Tim’s unemotional, opaque monotone that reveals his desolate state. Thus, when Cheung’s Daniela explains that she finds he tried to hang himself in their house where he was staying, we are not surprised. Nor are we surprised at Daniela’s expressed hatred for Theresa who can’t acknowledge what is happening to her son. We have seen Tim’s debilitating depression in action with his mother who doesn’t understand her son.
The subsequent hospital scene where Yang’s Tim acts out against being there to his final scene with Robbie convey the misery and hopelessness of his condition. Yang and Schneider do a wonderful job at this juncture. From benign beginning between the almost silly Theresa and Roberta to the conclusion, Tim’s severe illness finally emerges. We note that the events and conversations have led up to this point as merely the tip of the iceberg below which Tim’s state looms to crash into his mother. He can no longer front with her and they become alienated. Theresa rejects his mental state and perhaps as a distraction appears more concerned about herself. However, Robbie is accepting and loving to Tim. We would like to believe he will be there for him. Yet, in a fade to black the outcome is uncertain, as is with mental illness where the patient doesn’t believe in the efficacy of his own survival.
With a different directorial approach, the themes might have been brought to bear more powerfully. Unfortunately, with this iteration, there is much that remained muddled. One wonders how the dialogue would stand up if the six characters were not in search of delineated roles melting into a mix of ages and genders. Possibly, if performances were less stylized with speech patterns and mannerisms forcing for laughs, the results would have been more dynamic. Indeed, the parts of the production that were authentic and acted with spot-on immediacy (minus exposition), were standouts. Kudos to the three actors in those sections.
Kudos to the creative team that effected the variety of setting changes including the hospital scene. Likewise, to the fine organization of props and setting for the Christmas celebration. The team includes Matt Saunders (scenic design), Enver Chakartash (costume design), Marika Kent (lighting design), Bray Poor (sound design).
Golden Shield by Anchuli Felicia King, directed by May Adrales currently at Manhattan Theatre Club is a thematically rich and profound work that looks into corporate greed, political activism, digital censorship as a means of control, the ethic of understanding a different language through translation without considering cultural variance, and relationship reconciliation redux. Through the lens of a jury trial against corrupt actors who refuse to consider the consequences of their actions when digital efficiency and progress is at stake, King examines ethical responsibility and the fallout when accountability is measured in litigation awards.
The principal theme begins when audience members hear the instructions to keep masks on and turn off cell phones in another language. Mandarin. They think they know what is being discussed because it is the protocol of all theatrical experience in New York City to be reminded before the play begins to be the dutiful audience. However, in reality, unless they have a working knowledge of Mandarin, they don’t know what is being said. The speaker might be cursing out the audience; thus, the setting and context determine the level of trust the audience has for the speaker.
This is the linchpin of Golden Shield, illustrated by Fang Du, the clever and affable Translator who takes our hand during the more opaque sections of the two act drama and guides us with his knowledge of Mandarin and unaccented English. We can only assume that he understands both languages to provide a correct translation of what is happening when the conversation is only in Mandarin. Thus, we trust him. But should we? This is a slippery slope. Indeed, trust between and among human beings, even if they are friends and family, as King proves, is flawed.
It is a fluid theme. By the end of the play, The Translator learns an important lesson. There is no correct translation for what happens during the play between older sister Julie Chen (the excellent Cindy Cheung) and younger sister Eva (the superb Ruibo Qian) who Julie abandoned to live with their tyrannical mother in China when she was a child. Nor is there a correct translation for what happens to Li Dao (Michael C. Liu in a heartfelt powerful portrayal) when Eva gives a one sentence translation that mistakenly encourages Li Dao to take a course of action that impacts him and the case that Julie is trying for her law firm.
Indeed, The Translator and the Chens realize that translation is a matter of interpretation of cultural values, the proper selection of metaphors and figurative language, subtle inflections and nuances in a contextual medium that must be included to convey what an individual is saying. Finally, there is no translation for why Chen acts as she does at the play’s end, nor is there a translation for the villain ONYS Systems in how they relate to the Chinese government.
Language between native speakers is not easily conveyed if there are geographical and cultural differences within a nation. Words hold loaded meanings and what one thinks one communicates may hold offense or have an entirely different understanding for the listener. How much more is the confusion of communication if a language that conveys meaning in a circular fashion through characters and pictorial thoughts is translated to a listener and speaker of English which is essentially linear and word based, and whose time is chronological? Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Japanese are effectively without chronology, and retain a circularity and pictorial, visual thought process seamlessly navigated and understood by those who speak, read and write it.
Interestingly, Fang Du’s Translator warns us about the chronological expansiveness of English compared to the circularity of Mandarin and suggests there is no word for word translation. However, by the end of the play as he lives through and guides us through the events, even he is caught up short. The revelation for him is profound because he has been in the “God” seat. But he becomes enlightened like the Chens and the audience that what results is because of incomplete translation and incorrect “interpretation” and felt understanding. Mistaken understanding roils through every interaction in King’s play; it is fascinating.
This is perhaps the most profound of the themes in King’s work which takes place between 2006-2016 and shifts scenes from Washington, D.C. to Beijing, to Yingcheng, to Dallas, to Palo Alto to Melbourne. Though flashback is used and The Translator keeps us mapped out in the setting and scenes, Act 1 is top heavy. The playwright wants to say so much that she dilutes the force by trying to jam pack it all i>. Truly, the play could be streamlined and the dialogue shaved at the least to arrive at the question what are the most salient, striking themes. How can they be made to bring the audience toward vibrance.
When I saw Golden Shield, members of the audience appeared to be most affected by the relationship which implodes between the Chens. Nevertheless, King’s passion for the topics and themes is noteworthy. How do you streamline even a few words when you are in love with what your characters are saying to you. I get it, but it bears looking at for future productions to make Act I a dynamo and powerhouse leading through Act II in its explosion/implosion and powerful trial scene testimony then the conclusion.
The frame of King’s work fans out into part courtroom drama, part lawyer discussion, part insider talk at the fictional American tech company ONYS Systems. They get the contract to create a process to help them spy on any activity that opposition and adversaries use to smash the firewall of digital censorship that pertains throughout China. ONYS Systems’ pompous Elon Musk-type executive Marshall McLaren (the sardonic and superb Max Gordon Moore) creates an effective firewall by decentralizing it into multiple checkpoints, making it much easier for Chinese monitors to gauge spying and identify hackers who defy China’s digital control.
Thus, ONYS Systems in an extraordinary pro-communist political move is used as a tool of the Communist Chinese government to expose potential American spies in a counter-American action to protect itself. It also is used as the chief deterrent to stop hacking their firewall by identifying the hackers and punishing them severely.
During the course of the play, we understand the culpability of ONYS Systems through Moore’s McLaren. His nonchalance and self-satisfied genius, that he and he alone came up with this plan of decentralization for his company which increased their profitability exponentially as China pays them a huge price is loathsome. Interestingly, Moore makes the character ironic with the help of Adrales fine direction. Thus, the full understanding becomes “lost in translation.” And the full impact of how China has created a puppet in McLaren/ONYS Systems as a compromat or whatever the Mandarin word is for those without ethics or integrity who turn against their own nation, humanity and the “little people” for extraordinary wealth is muted. But hey, what the hell; it’s just business. (Some of this plays out from real life; check out Cisco and Yahoo litigation.)
Meanwhile, McLaren and ONYS Systems have ignored the impact of this “Golden Shield.” Their bottom line is paramount. Enter Chinese-American attorney Julie Chen who leads a class-action lawsuit by eight dissidents against ONYS Systems, chief among them the severely injured Professor Li Dao. Chen has found an obscure law used against pirates a few centuries ago that gives federal courts the jurisdiction to hear litigation filed by non-U.S. citizens for torts committed in violation of international law. She convinces her partner in the firm (Daniel Jenkins who doubles in his ONYS Systems’ role ) that they must take the case of the dissidents. She is passionate, convinced that McClaren and ONYS Systems are culpable for injuring the dissidents via their digital assistance to the oppressive and brutal Communists. Indeed, during various flashbacks we learn of Professor Dao’s five year imprisonment and torture because he showed students how to circumvent the Communist governments’ new “Great Wall of China,” The Golden Shield.
Enter the side plot and conflict between the siblings which also is lost in translation, misunderstanding and flawed communication because of emotional trauma, cultural differences and denial. Julie hires her sister Eva to visit China with her and speak to Professor Liu who can only testify and reveal so much of the brutality visited upon him under the Communists because he has been traumatized. The most vital scenes of the play occur with Li Dao and his wife Hang Mei (the fine Kristen Hung). Liu represents Li Dao with such empathy throughout that his portrayal ironically, though we don’t understand his speech, conveys superb understanding of his feelings and his expressions. Thus, the theme of translation being an incomplete and flawed means of communication hits the hardest with their performances because the words don’t matter. The emotions, tone, timbre wrought with great feeling immediately convey truth.
In Act II the courtroom scene where Professor Dao testifies is sensationally done with all the actors firing on all syllables. However, Chen as a result of her own trauma with her mother and leaving her sister in China has a confluence of emotions which end up forcing her to take a path which is devastating. For her part Eva, who we find out has been a sex worker and has compromised her sister’s relationship with her law firm partner, ends up bereft and lost. By the conclusion all the characters reveal that the events have traumatized them in one way or another. It doesn’t become a matter of winning or losing the lawsuit, it becomes whether or not one respects oneself for one’s choices.
Only Eva in her relationship with her Aussie lover (Gillian Saker who also does double duty as lawyer for ONYS Systems) seems to be seeking some sort of resolution with herself, especially after she throws over her sister Julie. But all of the characters are flawed, not very appealing, ethically challenged with the exception of the Professor Dao who has paid a terrible price for challenging China’s autocracy and repression. And indeed, by the play’s conclusion the future appears even more bleak as McLaren provides himself an off-ramp from changing his ways reflecting on the Dark Web, Block Chain and other tech “innovations” which provide myriad ways toward profitability by any means necessary.
I particularly enjoyed dots’ scenic design which coupled with Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew’s lighting design was used to smashing effect during the scenes relating to the Professor’s prison term and punishment. The set of Li Dao’s and Huang Mei’s living raised on a platform and framed by the lattacework partitions/screens on either side intimated the cultural setting, though the living room appeared Western. Its functionality was pointed and well thought out. Kudos to the rest of the creative team for applying King’s themes and Adrales’ vision. These include Sara Ryung Clement (costume design) Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts (original music & sound design) Tom Watson (hair & wig design).
The show closes on Sunday 12 June. I have highly recommended to to friends. It is a must-see and will be performed again. Look for it regionally. For tickets go to their website: https://www.manhattantheatreclub.com/shows/2021-22-season/golden-shield/