A taut and engrossing play by Madhuri Shekar premieres at Victory Gardens Theater.
Fighting the good fight is never easy. That's apparent from the very first scene of Madhuri Shekar's new drama Queen, now receiving its world premiere at Victory Gardens Theater. Ph.D candidates Sanam Shah (Priya Mohanty) and Ariel Spiegel (Darci Nalepa) have been collaborating for six years, searching for the root cause of Colony Collapse Disorder, the pervasive and troubling disappearance of honeybees. They think they've found the perpetrator, and it's a pesticide used by none other than Monsanto Industries, the monolithic agricultural corporation. Their careers are taking off, but their jealous colleagues are growing cold to them.
As the deadline for presentation and publications draws close, Sanam discovers an abnormality in their findings. Is it simply an error in the data modeling, or something more significant? Sanam combs through her work with help from Arvind (Adam Voss), an unflappably amoral Wall Street trader who is drawn to Sanam. As Sanam and Ariel begin to understand their situation, their ethics are tested, as is their friendship.
Much is riding on the success of their study — their careers, Sanam's residency in the U.S., and perhaps even the future of agriculture — but the friendship at the core of Queen is as important and precarious as any of the higher stakes. With vivid chemistry, Mohanty and Nalepa perfectly capture the complexity of a friendship between colleagues.
Nalepa fills Ariel with raw emotion and honesty, an excellent contrast to Mohanty's cautious, careful Sanam. When Mohanty is paired with Poss, they are as charming as any quick-witted romcom couple. Stephen Spencer rounds out the cast as Dr. Philip Hayes, Shah and Spiegel's supervisor, who balances his own ambitions with academic rigor. Spencer acquits himself ably, though the role is not as well drawn as the other three.
Though there are some fitful transitions, the 90-minute play is directed at a tight clip by Joanie Schultz. Chelsea M. Warren's set proves as versatile as it is stylish, aided by simple, understated lighting by Heather Gilbert. Janice Pytel's costume design is similarly unfussy, befitting a play about devoted academics staring down a deadline.
Queen is ultimately a play about ethics. What would justify sacrificing your professional reputation? What about a friendship? If you sacrifice your integrity for the greater good, what kind of person are you? Shekar's play examines these questions with precision, never veering into heavy-handed morality, and always balancing the stress and suspense with a touch of confidence as two women and several thousand bees fight the good fight together.