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Theatre Reviews by James Wilson - June 14, 2022

Avanthika Srinivasan and Stephanie Janssen
Photo by Jeremy Daniel
In Madhuri Shekar's Queen (produced by the National Asian American Theatre Company and playing at A.R.T./NY Theatres), reputations, careers, lives, and even the global food chain hang in the balance. Bees are dying at an alarming rate, and unless scientific evidence can root out the causes behind the destruction, the fate of the planet is at stake. So what if the research is a little shaky, and who cares that the numbers don't quite add up, if disseminating the information might prevent an international ecological crisis?

Ph.D. candidates Ariel Spiegel (Stephanie Janssen), an ecology major, and Sanam Shah (Avanthika Srinivasan), an applied mathematician, have been studying the effects of pesticides on bees for several years, and they are about to publish their findings in a major scientific journal. Among their academic colleagues, they are, well, queen bees. They have the support of their nationally esteemed professor and advisor, Dr. Philip Hayes (Ben Livingston), and they are poised to enter academia as superstars.

The women are also close friends, albeit from very different backgrounds. Ariel comes from working-class roots and, as a single mother, she can't quite shed the imposter syndrome that makes her even more determined to succeed as a scholar. Sanam is Indian American, and although her parents are quite well off, she is resolved to be independent and establish herself within a male-dominated field. In order to appease her traditionally minded parents, though, Sanam goes on periodic blind dates with suitable-for-marrying Indian American men. Her latest suitor is Arvind Patel (Keshav Moodliar), a hotshot financier visiting from New York City.

As the research partners put the final touches on their peer-reviewed article and are preparing their notes for a conference presentation, Sanam discovers that the recent data no longer `support their original hypotheses. If they simply "smooth the rough edges," as Ariel suggests, they can move forward and no one would be the wiser. Besides, as Dr. Hayes points, scientists publish findings all the time with known inaccuracies.

But this raises all kinds of ethical questions. If they don't publicize their results, then corporate conglomerates like the Monsanto Company, which produces devastating pesticides, will continue to profitably destroy the environment. (The play is set in 2016, and the company was sold to Bayer in 2018. The Monsanto name disappeared. Incidentally, individuals interested in learning more about Monsanto and other food-production companies should check out the excellent 2008 documentary,Food, Inc.) Yet, as Sanam counters, people have lost faith in science, and cynically putting out false information will only prove them right.

Under Aneesha Kudtarkar's taut direction, Queen is much more than a series of talking points, and it is not solely an intellectual debate about science and morality. Indeed, the characters are not mere mouthpieces, and they have complicated and interesting backstories. As the conflicted researchers, Janssen and Srinivasan are excellent. They are completely convincing as they wrestle with the personal and professional risks that may culminate from their decisions.

Livingston is credible as the success-at-all-costs professor, and he suitably downplays the character's smarminess. The whirlwind romance between Sanam and Arvind is not particularly believable, but Moodliar is charming and very funny as the ethically challenged investment banker.

The play does not overdo the bee analogy (thankfully), but the design elements neatly gesture to the hive-like world the characters inhabit. Junghyun Georgia Lee's terrific scenic design consists of institutional lab tables arranged to resemble a hexagonal honeycomb cell. Yuki Nakase Link's appropriately geometric and fluorescent lighting is stark and unyielding. Additionally, spectators sit on three sides in raked rows (similar to a lecture hall) and observe the action as if looking at a mutating colony of bees.

The play intermingles math, science, and politics, but Shekar and the company of actors pollinate the play with heaping doses of humanity. In sum, NAATCO's production is well worth the visit, and theatregoers will find much to appreciate in an audience with this Queen.

Through July 1, 2022
NAATCO National Partnership Project in association with Long Wharf Theatre
A.R.T./NY Mezzanine Theatre, 502 West 53rd Street at 10th Avenue
Tickets online and current performance schedule: