Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Bee Smart and Make a Bee-line to see “Queen”

Queen (Pankaj Luthra)
Pratidhwani (at ACTLab)
Through August 19, 2018

If you love playwriting that crackles with tension and possibility, is laugh out loud funny, and full of surprising emotional twists, and takes on a very topical and important subject all at once, then you need to hie yourself over to ACT Theatre for Pratidhwani’s production of Madhuri Shekar’s play, Queen. Sometimes, it’s not clear why a title exists with a script. This one is pretty clear – it’s about bees and colony collapse disorder: CCD. So, it involves queen bees.

Also, it’s a story of two women doctoral candidates who are supreme. Supremely smart, and supremely good at their research, and supremely honorable in their intentions. Sanam Shah (Archana Srikanta) and Ariel Spiegel (Isis King) have been studying CCD at UCSanta Cruz and think they are on the verge of proving that a Monsanto chemical is the real culprit. They have been studying a model of research that Sanam is convinced has taken into consideration every variable that can be controlled for and excluded impacts from every variable that can’t be controlled for. 

They are on the verge of being published in Nature magazine, which would make their professor famous, secure jobs for them, make them the envy of other CCD study-teams and perhaps be the downfall of Monsanto’s chemical grip on this dangerous product. They could change the world. But. But the very last batch of data is skewing the whole study away from being “statistically significant.”

This is the one piece of mathematical understanding you need for this play. If something is statistically significant, it counts. Most calculations that are significant revolve around a particular 5% mark. If something falls outside that measure, it just doesn’t count any more. It’s not “significant.” Here, the data changes from under .05 to .08, and suddenly undercuts 7 years of study! Now what???!

Their professor, Philip (Stephen Grenley), just tells them to “do their job,” as if they can understand what he means. Does he mean they should fudge their results? Who would know? Would anyone find out? And suddenly the slippery slope appears!

In the meantime, Sanam goes out on another blind date set up by her parents. Arvind Patel (Pratik Shah) immediately offends with his presumption that Sanam would want to give up her work to become a housewife, flaunts his money from Wall Street, and talks about himself almost exclusively. Sanam’s and Arvind’s interactions are really funny, and surprising.

While the play is done in the round in ACT’s Bullitt Cabaret, which often makes a play even harder to direct well, Agastya Kohli manages to make it all flow together. With a simple, streamlined set (by Robin Macartney) of some asymmetrical desktops and some hexagonal blocks as seats (the desktops fit together to make hexagons, too, all like honeybee cells!), locations can change quickly from lab rooms to restaurants to a bedroom and a bee-yard. The sound choices by masterful Rob Witmer are just perfect in so many moments.

The script is really top-notch. This playwright knows how to write taut dialogue where every word is necessary and serves a purpose. It runs a hour 40 with no intermission. I’ll venture that few will be able to guess what comes next toward the end, and that is another way this play is smart. It does not telegraph what will happen. But it makes you care a lot about the characters and what they choose to do. You don’t want them to give up their own sense of honor and scientific accuracy, but you know how much they stand to lose if they don’t. You won’t want CCD to affect this little hive!

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