Kelsey holds a BFA in Theatre Studies and a BS in Cinema/Media Studies from the U of I in Champaign-Urbana. She's a freelance dramaturg, most recently working with Circle Theatre's Venus in Fur. Kelsey believes in theater's ability to change the world. A mix of wit and lit.
Priya Mohanty, Darci Nalepa. Photo by Liz Lauren.
Review: QUEEN at Victory Gardens Theater
By Kelsey McGrath
QUEEN is a solid little show that opened last Friday at Victory Gardens. Written by Madhuri Shekar, the play left this reviewer abuzz with hive knowledge and ready to change the world. QUEEN is a snippet in time when two Ph.D. students discover a fault in their calculations around the US’s disappearing bee populations. They’re confronted with a moral dilemma: will they continue to publish to “Nature,” the most prolific science publication in the country? Or admit their error and continue their experiment, putting their futures and the future of the bees on hold? The caveat? There is no time; the bee population is disappearing at an alarming rate. Both Sanam and Ariel are passionate about saving these necessary pollinators. Played by Priya Mohanty and Darci Nalepa respectively, the two women create a steadfast onstage energy. We journey with them as their friendship and the bees are in jeopardy.
Enter Arvind Patel, charmingly played by Adam Poss. Arvind is Sanam’s potential love interest. He also plays devil’s advocate with Sanam, noting a possible error in her calculations. While he is kind of a jerk, he’s likable, and the couple’s dynamic is awkwardly endearing. As their relationship progresses, Sanam’s happiness as a woman of Indian descent is brought to light. She must choose between her work and a romantic partner.
Dr. Philip Hays is the students’ mentor and head of the investigation. A lot is at stake for him as he is in line to accept a prestigious award based on the bee study results. Expertly played by Stephen Spencer, this moral villain will do anything for recognition.
This play does a really good job of asking big questions around ideological issues. It presents multiple solutions to a single problem. It confronts notions of truth and how the truth can be presented in a certain way. It discusses integrity in the scientific community and the value of anecdotal versus data-driven evidence; where our hearts lie and what convinces us to act, the want and the practical implementation of changing the world. Sanam is data driven, while Ariel leads with her awe for the bees. Is skewing the lab results morally correct if it means it has the potential to catapult positive change?
While the science of the play was riveting and easy to follow, the characters’ stakes were less intense. The focus of the play is more on education than human conflict, but it doesn’t feel brashly political. While this moral dilemma drives a wedge between them, we hardly feel the urgency of this divide or the heartbreak and momentousness of their blowout. Perhaps we do not see enough of the connection created over six years of working together or don’t see the lasting impact of their breakup to clearly understand what drives them. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it just shifts the priorities from being a relationship-driven story to one of education and questions.
The representation in QUEEN is awesome. We have two powerhouse women fighting convention and fighting for what they want. Ariel, a white woman from an impoverished, blue collar background, and Sanam, an Indian student studying on a visa are both forces to be reckoned with. They stand boldly by their code of ethics despite what’s at stake for their future. We see them for the complex individuals they are. We see them with family, with each other, on dates, as scientists, and as friends. Their specific roles are rarely explored on stage. QUEEN lifts up women in a way that’s intellectual and passionate. In a way that’s human.