Chicago Theater Review: QUEEN (Victory Gardens)

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by Lawrence Bommer on April 22, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


Bees, it seems, are humming their last. In the future, honey could well be synthetic. Appropriately debuting on Earth Day weekend, this world premiere from Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater tackles many issues in 90 minutes: the fate of endangered honeybees around the world; the purity of scientific research; the moral dilemma of choosing between friendship and success; and the “cooking” of data for profit more than progress. Madhuri Shekar’s character drama Queen resonates, with due credit to Joanie Schultz’s brisk, persuasive staging.

“Publish or perish” remains a cautionary choice in scientific circles. No cliché, the imperative hangs over the futures of Shekar’s principled principals—female Ph.D. candidates from different worlds yoked by a passion to preserve the planet. Ostensibly, there’s little in common between Sanam Shah (Priya Mohanty), a privileged Indian immigrant from a wealthy caste who’s studying on a work visa, and Ariel Spiegel (Darci Nalepa), a single mom from a poor family who’s the first in her family to attend college, let alone do graduate work.

What forged their friendship over some six years is their dedication to finding the cause of “colony collapse disorder,” the worldwide disappearance of honeybee populations and the subsequent decline of a very important industry. After many samplings and following a supposedly infallible model, Ariel and Sanam are convinced the destruction comes from us, specifically a widely used pesticide sold by Monsanto Industries.

Their career-defining findings have gained them a prestigious outlet—an article in Nature Magazine and an upcoming presentation at a major ecological conference. Perhaps it’s too good to be (literally) true: Sanam discovers an irregularity in their evidence, a miscalculation or failure of the model that, if obscured, might still escape notice and leave intact their indictment of a nefarious polluter. “Who’s going to know?”

So are “confirmation bias” and their own subjective projections swaying Sanam and Ariel to manipulate the research to achieve pre-determined results—valuable publicity that could ban a global menace and save the hives? “This is political.” Is it even possible, if not extenuating, that the inconsistency in their investigation came during a suspension of their studies due to Ariel’s unexpected pregnancy? As for Sanam, might she be sent back to India because she didn’t make her case and land a job?

Or is fraud just fraud?

Desperate for a big break, ambitious Ariel argues against disclosing the error. So does their headline-chasing thesis professor Dr. Philip Hayes (Stephen Spencer), his hopes for more funding hanging on the women’s breakthrough bombshell. Adding to the argument is Sanam’s amoral boyfriend Arvind Patel (Adam Poss), a venal, numbers-crunching derivatives trader who thinks Sanam would be better off using her math skills to cheat at cards in Las Vegas. Foolishly underestimating Sanam’s abilities and her calling, Arvind figures that, if he marries her and takes her to New York, she will be “free” of any man-shaming need to work. Sanam sees otherwise.

With a publication deadline looming and so much at stake, the former friends face a quandary: Do they fudge their years of careful observation or postpone their exploration simply because of an apparent ambiguity? Perhaps the bees, cultivating new queens who can teach the hives to avoid the pesticide, can save themselves, with a little aid from human helpers?

The resolution of Shekar’s fascinating impasse must, of course, not be divulged. Suffice it to say that her script honors its feminist urges whenever possible: The men here seem every bit as shallow as they are pragmatic.

Along the happily efficient but somewhat contrived way, Schultz’s quartet and Shekar’s light touch never belabor a taut and truthful drama. Though mired in bureaucracy and driven to shortcuts, Sanam and Ariel are crusaders in their own right, as necessary as pollinators and beekeepers. They’re a credit to our hive.

photos by Liz Lauren

Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave
Tues-Fri at 7:30; Sat at 3 & 7:30; Sun at 3
ends on May 14, 2017
for tickets, call 773.871.3000 or visit Victory Gardens

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago


{ 1 comment }

nikki smith May 19, 2017 at 6:03 pm

Thanks, Larry.
As always this is very well written — as was the drama

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