SEATTLE REVIEW: ACT’s Production of QUEEN Explores Truth And Compromise Through The Science Of Bees

Published on August 11, 2018 by   ·   No Comments

This is the obligatory spoiler warning.  As this play is in performances in Seattle and most of my readership is Midwest-based, I’m going to talk in depth about the plot and situations of this play.  If you happen to be in Seattle, or will be before the show closes on August 19, and you think you might want to go see it, I suggest that you get your tickets, see the show, and then head on back here to join the conversation.  If you don’t mind spoilers, then proceed at your own risk.  XOXO – Miss Jaye

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What I love about checking out the ACT Theatre every time I’m in Seattle is the breadth of entertainment and styles that I encounter.  I’ve seen a post-apocalyptic tribute to pop culture, specifically The Simpsons (Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play), a one-woman show about navigating divorce and heartbreak while facing down middle age (Lauren Weedman Doesn’t Live Here Anymore), a spooky and campy music and dance show celebrating Halloween with Drag Race alum BenDeLaCreme (Beware The Terror At Gaylord Manor), a collection of short plays written and produced over the course of 48 hours (The 14/48 Project), and a gritty examination of the power and danger of passion by theatre great Sam Shepard (Fool For Love), to name just a few.  In my latest trip, my entrée of theatre was served with lots of science and culturally significant message, thanks to theatre group Pratidhwani.

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According to the ACT website preview of the show, “Pratidhwani is a non-profit cultural organization based in the Seattle area, driven to create and promote performing opportunities for artists of South Asian heritage. At its core, Pratidhwani is a group of professionals who are extremely enthusiastic and passionate about the artistic traditions of our homeland.”  For this particular production, they present the story of a friendship between two women, their hopes of scientific discovery, and how relationships can be greatly altered by the tension between truth and compromise.

Bees 06Sanam (Archana Srikanta) and Ariel (Isis King) are two graduate students who have a lot to celebrate.  Their research into declining bee populations and the causes of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), representing nearly a decade of labor and study, has generated some very impressive results – results that are about to be published in Nature, one of the most respected scientific journals for professionals in their field.  Their paper has been peer-reviewed three times and the initial draft has been accepted, but the journal has asked for one more round of data to be included in the final publication to make the study that much more robust.  As Sanam, a mathematician who is responsible for building the algorithmic model for the study, crunches those new numbers, something happens: the numbers go in a different direction, calling their entire research study into question.

At first Sanam and Ariel assume there is something wrong with how the data was entered or some bug in the code.  But as Sanam works through the model, over and over again, she begins to suspect that the problem may have more to do with her and Ariel’s preconceived notions going into the study than with what the results are showing.

Bees 01There is a lot of science and math in the show, lots of theories and complicated concepts, but Madhuri Shekar’s script does a wonderful job of working in enough information to stay with the action without feeling like the characters are stopping to give the audience a “Sciencey Stuff 101” lesson every 10 minutes.  As the truth emerges, that their results are no longer statistically significant when including the newest batch of data, the question becomes what to do with it.  Their professor, Phillip Hayes (Stephen Grenley), suggests that Sanam find a way to make the data work, and he conscripts Ariel into helping her get there.  Ariel is a single mother who comes from a working class background (her family’s doomed business of providing bee colonies to farmers for pollination is what drives her passion for the project), and Hayes suggests that this publication might lead to better, more lucrative things for her future.  Arvind (Pratik Shah), a wealthy hedge fund manager Sanam’s parents have recently set her up with, casually suggests that she can massage the data, oversample older batches to keep the overall data within the range of statistical significance.  Sanam is horrified by his suggestion, but finds herself strangely drawn to this vulgar and straight-talking man.  She asks Arvind to look over her data, and he agrees (initially thinking the invitation to her office is romatic in nature, but then actually becoming caught up in the excitement of their intellectual sparring).  He suggests that she may have forgotten about the threshold effect, and that perhaps her bias against Monsanto (their research specifically calls out the company’s neonicotinoid pesticides as the cause of CCD) may have caused her overlook certain possibilities.

But if all of this mathematical complexity has your head spinning, it’s got nothing on the family complications that come into play as the two women wrestle with what to do about this unsolvable problem.  As Sanam and Ariel are trying to find the root of the problem with the data, Ariel finally snaps and says that Sanam must have done something wrong or that her model must be flawed; she feels like they already know that Monsanto is to blame for CCD, so why not just manipulate the data for the publication?  Sanam is angry that Ariel would question her integrity as a scientist, and in the process of the argument suggests that Ariel might not be as worthy of her achievements as other students.  The conflict deepens when Sanam finds a note in one of their old research journals where they suggested that they might expand their field work to include additional sampling populations…but they didn’t.  And the reason they didn’t is because Ariel found out that she was pregnant.  As the director of the field experiments, it was too much to take on so they let undergrad students work the same fields and convinced themselves that their early data was so promising, there was no real need to expand the sample size.  Ariel is overcome with shame, but eventually lashes out at Sanam for not telling her what the potential consequences of expanding the study might be; she even suggests that she might have considered terminating her pregnancy in order to preserve their project.  That truth sits heavy between them as Sanam leaves, seeking out Arvind for another perspective.

Bees 09Arvind is meant to serve as a counterpoint to the “tree-hugging liberals” who are studying bees, but he actually receives more development than your typical conservative straw man.  Beneath his vulgarity and his smooth talking, his braggadocio and tales of Vegas casinos with ridiculously impossible bets, he’s a man who’s deeply lonely and who finds Sanam’s single-minded determination and dedication to the truth above all else both charming and inefficient for modern living.  He recognizes that life is about compromise; sure, massaging the data in the paper isn’t exactly ethical, but it allows Sanam, Ariel, and Hayes to achieve something good and it prevents Sanam from losing her friendship.  Isn’t that worth a little knock to the integrity?  He wants to live a life that is challenging and where the rewards are great, but he also wants companionship – and he thinks that Sanam could be a very interesting companion.  His words are seductive, and against her better judgment Sanam makes love with him in his hotel room after her fight with Ariel, but even as he admires her spirit and her intellect, he seeks to tame them: he wants her to come and live with him in New York; he says that she can be an analyst if she likes, or he could support her.  He wants to take away the things that make her her most authentic self, and when he propses (via texted photos from a New York jewelry store, no less) she has to turn him down.  He loves her for who she is, but he’s offering her a life that would force her to change, and she knows there is no way that can work.

This theme also plays out in Hayes’ office when the three meet up to discuss what to do about their upcoming presentation at a conference announcing their findings.  Sanam, finally willing to sacrifice her integrity for the sake of her bond with Ariel, turns in the updated copy of their research with the massaged numbers.  Hayes is thrilled and confirms with her that there is little to no chance that their maneuvering will be discovered.  Ariel is shocked that Sanam would be willing to compromise her integrity, and threatens to expose Hayes to the editors at Nature as well as to the University’s review board.  Hayes is enraged and tells Ariel that she barely deserves to be where she is, calling her a “community college charity case” that no one will believe.  Sanam tells him that she will go with Ariel and support everything she says.  This, this is the thing that Ariel needed from Sanam: the support to realize that her integrity was worth more than her ambitions or the weariness of her struggles, not some altered research to support her convictions against a billion-dollar agricultural giant.

Bees 05At the end, everything is in disarray.  Hayes goes to the conference, but pulls the presentation and the announcement of the publication.  Arvind is left kneeling in a jewelry store, not understanding that real love is found in the challenges, not in convenience.  Sanam is faced with the thought that she may have lost not only her years of research but also a very dear friend.  And Ariel is off tending bees, wondering if she’ll ever be able to do anything to make a difference, in her own life or the world.  Sanam goes to where Ariel is working with the bees to talk to her one last time.  Maybe there is a way to salvage their research, to refocus it or to take it in a new direction.  Both women are feeling defeated.  But as they talk, Ariel opens up one of the hives to see a familiar and encouraging ritual: a new queen bee has emerged and the workers are now “cuddling” the old queen to death.  It’s a cycle of death and rebirth that indicates the health of a colony.

And thought things may be different, they know they’re going to be ok.

Bees 02All of the actors in the show did a wonderful job bringing the material to life and they all brought characters to the stage who were dynamic and flawed and beautiful to watch.  I especially enjoyed Shah’s performance as the begrudgingly likable Arvind; even though you know he’s a bad match for Srikanta’s coyly persistent Sanam, Shah makes him seem like a compromise you’d be willing to make.  King’s Ariel is devoted to the point of obsessed, and she plays the extremes of the character’s journey very well while maintaining a loving core.  Hayes is perhaps a more one-dimensional character, his supposed care for the bees a paper-thin subterfuge for his own ambitions, but Grenley plays him with a degree of subtlety that allows him to represent all of the excesses of academic competition without devolving into mustache-twirling.  He never quite makes it to likeable, but there are moments in Grenley’s performance where you can understand how these two smart, capable women could have been drawn in to his ambitions.

At the end, as Sanam watches the cuddling ritual (at a distance – despite having spent years of her life dedicated to research to help save bee populations, she’s still afraid of the bees themselves), she gets stung.  That’s the thing about truth: sometimes it hurts, but it still deserves to be protected.

Queen is playing at the ACT Theatre in Seattle through August 19; tickets can be purchased through the ACT website.

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