Review: Queen is buzzing with drama, both intellectual and emotional

At Madhuri Shekar’s Queen, which premieres off-Broadway with the National Asian American Theater Company, largely revolves around two scientists’ efforts to reconcile a sudden statistical discrepancy that threatens to discredit a honey bee decimation study they’ve been working on for around six years. It sounds like incredibly dry subject matter on the surface, so Shekar deserves credit for extracting the engrossing human drama from it without making it silly or condescending to its audience. It also helps that Shekar has so much more in mind than this particular science/math topic.

Basically, the two scientists of Queen are women: mathematician Sanam Shah (Avanthika Srinivasan) and ecology researcher Ariel Spiegel (Stephanie Janssen). Their relationship is the focus of Shekar’s play, especially since the aforementioned gap not only threatens their impending professional breakthrough – their study is set to be published in the prestigious Nature magazine — but also their friendship and their individual professional ambitions. Some of these ambitions are indeed linked to their gender, with their supervising professor, Dr. Philip Hayes (Ben Livingston), to some extent representing the majority of white males in the scientific community in which Sanam and Ariel try, in their own way. . , drill.

Avanthika Srinivasan plays Sanam and Ben Livingston plays Dr. Philip Hayes in the off-Broadway debut of Queen.
(© Jeremy Daniel)

But Ariel in particular is also driven by militant zeal. A single mother who has been passionate about bees since childhood, she becomes particularly distraught when Sanam discovers that recent data has put a damper on their previously well-substantiated conclusion that pesticides created by the biotech company Monsanto were one of the main causes of the colony collapse disorder. Sanam, however, is more driven by numbers than passion – a worldview reflected to some degree in the play’s fourth main character, Arvind Patel (Keshav Moodliar), a New York-based financier and romantic interest. potential for Sanam who has a similar facility for statistics, but it is less linked to his daily work than is Sanam. It is during their mixed bag of a first date that Arvind suggests the devastating possibility that Saman and Ariel’s study may be marred by confirmation bias.

In short, Queen aims to do more than just highlight an environmental issue. Basically, it dramatizes the eternal conflict between logic and emotion, and how such a dichotomy can manifest itself even in the realm of science. It is the depth of Shekar’s characterizations, the way Sanam and Ariel in particular feel like three-dimensional people, that allows the play to transcend its activist and allegorical trappings.

Excellent performances, under the direction of Aneesha Kudtarkar, also contribute to this production. Moodliar brings a coy stage-stealing energy to his scenes as Arvind, charming and funny even when defending Monsanto and pushing too hard for Sanam’s affections. By contrast, Livingston exudes a paternal authority that becomes menacing when the play’s central scientific and interpersonal conflict reaches its climax. But Srinivasan and Janssen are the stars of this production, and they exude an easy relationship that feels genuinely long-standing. Their one big confrontation scene – in which Ariel desperately suggests a solution to their statistical problem that Sanam considers deeply unethical – crackles with agonizing tension, a jaw-dropping display of the best in live theater.

Keshav Moodliar plays Arvind in Madhuri Shekar’s off-Broadway series Queen.
(© Jeremy Daniel)

Kudtarker surrounded his actors with a sober and elegant production that eschews realism in favor of a more expressionistic bent. Yuki Nakase Link showers ART/New York Theaters’ Mezzanine Theater with blackish lighting that makes the space feel like a mission control room, with electronic sound design by the collective UptownWorks (composed of Daniela Hart, Noel Nichols and Bailey Trierweller), punctuated with buzzes, adding to the clinical feel during scene transitions. Junghyun Georgia Lee’s stage design, however, is the most imaginative of them all. Consisting simply of five black tables arranged in a honeycomb pattern that part in the middle of the room, Lee’s simple setting functions as a poetic metaphor for the play’s main dramatic arc: the shattering of scientific certainty. .

It is this bursting that gives Queen a deeper resonance beyond its immediate topical concerns. In his piece, Shekar creates a dialectic between two extreme perspectives – one based on cold, hard facts; the other is more willing to bend facts in search of greater perceived truth – and finds that there may be more of a match between them than originally assumed. This is a piece that, at its best, satisfies both the head and the heart.

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