Madhuri Shekar’s provocative world premiere play, “Queen,” which examines the nature of the scientific method, personal ethics and (as its title suggests), the profoundly worrying demise of the global honeybee population in recent decades, could not have arrived on the stage of Victory Gardens Theater at a more propitious moment than it did last Friday. For the very next day — in protest against the Trump administration’s threat of budget cuts for agencies funding scientific work — there was a formidable March for Science, as crowds massed in the U.S. capital and around the world to support science and evidence-based research.
When: Through May 14
Where: Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln
Tickets: $15 – $60
Run time: 95 minutes, with no intermission
Shekar’s play might have given those marchers a good deal to argue about as they considered some of its more unsettling revelations. For “Queen” is as much a critique of science — or at least some of the public and personal politics involved in its pursuit — as it is a laudatory look at the extraordinary rigor that drives the vast majority of serious scientists. The play is awash in ethical dilemmas. And of course that is only fitting given that science is the work of human beings. And their quest for recognition and advancement, their vulnerability to personal interest and/or passionate advocacy, and their continua, often demoralizing quest for funding can sometimes have a warping effect. To be sure, the situation here is the exception rather than the rule, but it happens.
The backdrop for Shekar’s story is the University of California, Santa Cruz (and you have to wonder what the school’s response might be given all that happens in this play), where two PhD students (and friends) have spent the past seven years collaborating on research about the decimation of the bee population. They are Sanam Shah (Priya Mohanty), a brilliant programmer from a well-to-do Indian family who is in the U.S. on a special visa, and Ariel Spiegel (Darci Nalepa), a struggling single mother and impassioned theorist who believes a Monsanto-manufactured pesticide is to blame for the bees’ death.
The women’s adviser and “principal investigator” on the project is Dr. Philip Hayes (Stephen Spencer), a raving chauvinist in what, until relatively recently, has been the male-dominated world of science. But the group’s paper has just been accepted for publication in the hugely prestigious journal, Nature. And he is about to receive an award at a major conference where the results of the study will be presented before an audience of scientists who are clearly fierce competitors working on the same research topic. So there is reason to celebrate.
And then it happens. While looking over the results of the study after inserting the latest figures, Sanam realizes that something is not at all right. What is wrong? How should she proceed? She confides in Ariel, and both are in a panic that erupts into something more.
In the exceedingly winning comic subplot of the play, that unspools at the very same moment all this is happening, Sanam has agreed to go on a blind date with Arvind Patel (Adam Poss), a slick and brainy New York derivatives whiz (and poker player) who is in Santa Cruz on business. These two are not at all meant for each other, although Arvind is rather gobsmacked by Sanam’s mathematical brilliance and eccentricity, and though she finds him obnoxious but attractive, she also thinks he might be able to figure out where (or why) her calculations went wrong. Their encounters could not be more hilarious, and are played to perfection, even if Mohanty’s diction is sometimes clouded.
Ultimately, a major ethical quandary must be faced, with long-term professional reputations and personal relationships in the balance for everyone involved. Even more crucially, there is the question of whether the essential “rightness” of the findings might in some small way help save the bee population (and, without engaging in hyperbole, much of human life), and even mitigate the skewing of the statistics.
Shekar is a brainy and entertaining writer, although she forces some things — particularly the showdown with Dr. Hayes, whose big outburst would easily be grounds for charges of unprofessional scientific and personal behavior. (Just remember what happened to the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who told a conference that when women are in the lab “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry.”) But under Joanie Schultz’s deft direction this timely story about the interplay of science, conscience and the heart offers a most winning test case.