So there’s this play happening down at the A.R.T./New York Mezzanine Theatre called Queen, and no, it’s not about British royalty or drag queens, it’s actually about bees, and here’s the buzz:
Madhuri Shekar’s thought-provoking play centers around two PhD students, Sanam (Avanthika Srinivasan) and Ariel (Stephanie Janssen), who are finalizing a long-awaited, six-year study on the effect of corporate giant Monsanto’s pesticides (neonicotinoids, aka “neonics”) on honeybees. They, along with their professor Dr. Philip Hayes (Ben Livingston), hope to finally prove that the chemicals are responsible for CCD, or Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon where dying worker bees abandon their colonies, ultimately resulting in colony death.
The first sign of trouble appears when Sanam, the statistician, observes a variance in the results of her formulas when applied to the latest sample of data. Sanam enlists the help of Arvind (Keshav Moodliar), a man she’s just met on a blind date arranged by both their families. Arvind is a smooth-talking money guy who happens to be really good at figures too. When Sanam finally concludes that her numbers aren’t wrong, and that the study’s findings are no longer significant, she, Ariel and Dr. Hayes clash over whether to adjust the results and publish the study anyway.
The actors in this play are terrific.
Livingston’s portrayal of Dr. Hayes is keenly effective; he subtly vacillates between being the warm, supportive professor to a more selfish, vindictive cynic in a quiet, chilling manner.
Moodliar plays the role of Arvind with a cool confidence that comes off at first as slick and smarmy, but he imbues the role with delicate waves of charm, care and thoughtfulness, ultimately winning Sanam and the audience over despite his off-putting hubris.
Janssen and Srinivasan are completely winning as the two researchers Ariel and Sanam, respectively. Both passionately portray their roles with their own unique brands of fierce determination, while also adding touches of endearing vulnerability.
Shekar’s script is extremely smart, funny at just the right moments, and morally gripping. Her characterizations of Ariel and Sanam are fully formed, uniquely individual and carefully complementary: Ariel is a crunchy-granola, bee-loving, single mom who’s desperate to prove Monsanto’s guilt, and Sanam is intense, strong-minded and honest to a fault.
Through the character of Arvind, Shekar introduces the notion to Sanam that she and Ariel are looking at their study through the impartial lens of confirmation bias. The character of Dr. Hayes adds just the right amount of antagonism, almost sinister.
Although there’s lots of statistics jargon in the script, it never impedes the progress of the story, thanks to the actors and director Aneesha Kudtarkar, who skillfully shapes the piece, finely intertwining the performances to maximum impact.
The scenic design by Junghyun Georgia Lee is simple but clever: a set of tables which form a hexagon (think honeycomb) which are moved around to suit the staging. Yuki Nakase Link’s lighting design provides support for this scenic design, with hexagon-shaped lights. The costume design by Phuong Nguyen is well thought out and subtly supports Shekar’s fine characterizations.
Queen is intriguing and compelling. It shines a light on the nature of human ethics, as well as on confirmation bias (yeah, it’s a thing, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias), which is especially relevant in today’s political climate. Definitely worth a look-see.
Queen (through July 1, 2022)
The National Asian American Theatre Co., Inc. (NAATCO)
Presented as part of the NAATCO National Partnership with Long Wharf Theatre, in New Haven, CT
A.R.T./New York Mezzanine Theatre
502 West 53rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets visit https://naatco.org/
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes, without an intermission