In Madhuri Shekar’s Queen, currently onstage at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, a pair of Ph.D. candidates are on the brink of a major research breakthrough regarding colony collapse disorder, a mysterious — and real — plague that is destroying honeybee colonies.
At the University of California-Santa Cruz, Ariel Spiegel (Jordan Trovillion) is an impassioned biologist with a past in beekeeping. Her research partner, Sanam Shah (Shonita Joshi), is a more introverted statistician. Ariel is also a stressed single mother who needs academic success to advance her career and provide for her daughter. Sanam, the daughter of successful Indian immigrants, is more buttoned-down and still single, despite her parents’ pressure to consider marriage. The women are also best friends, sharing beers and comparing notes about their lives.
Under pressure from their academic advisor, Dr. Philip Hayes (Ryan Wesley Gilreath), the women have advanced to the point of releasing their findings. He’s just days away from speaking at a major scientific conference and the publication of the study in a prominent journal should cap off a rousing long-term project. But there’s a hitch: Sanam’s statistical modeling has gone awry. After several years of pointing directly to a pesticide manufactured by agrochemical company Monsanto as the reason for colony collapse, additional data recently added has reduced the certainty of their findings.Philip is pressing for clear-cut good news to advance his own career, and Ariel sees the project as her path to academic stardom. But principled Sanam is hesitant to move forward by unethically tinkering with the data. Playwright Shekar tricks this out further by sending Sanam on a blind date with Arvind Patel (Saiyam Kumar), a hotshot Wall Street banker her parents have urged her to meet because their respective grandfathers played golf together. Sanam is distracted by her off-the-rails research findings but meets with him. He rambles on about some high-stakes poker he’s won, and his arrogant bragging triggers Sanam’s notion that he might provide some insight into where her calculations have gone wrong.
Instead, their conversation leads her to the revelation that the research has been biased. Ariel and Sanam’s friendship is jeopardized as they argue over the ethics of proceeding. When they meet with Philip, he dismisses their concerns and accuses them of PMS — “Publication Misery Syndrome.” It’s a veiled threat to women working in a male-dominated research area. He orders them to assemble their outcomes in a way that masks the discrepancy.
As these conflicts unfold, Shekar’s script presents a lot of science and statistics, perhaps too much for many audiences — even though her writing translates complex theories into explications that are generally understandable, if perhaps too extensively presented. The production uses beautifully produced video on side screens, especially filmed images of bees collecting pollen (Sam Womelsdorf is the projection designer) that are shown during scene changes, but also display a startling, multiplying array of formulas as Sanam and Arvind try to navigate where her research has taken a wrong step.
Staged by veteran local director Bridget Leak, these fine actors combine for an entertaining evening of theater. Joshi portrays pleasant, serious Sanam in a wonderfully textured and conflicted manner. Her friendship with feisty Ariel is genuine, but she struggles with compromising her scientific principles. Sanam’s personal concerns, complicated by her friendship with Ariel and her attraction to Arvind, seem very human.
As Ariel, Trovillion handles the singularly obsessive character with discipline, but does not get to show a more complex set of values until the show’s final moments. Gilreath and Kumar’s male roles are more foils than fully drawn people — an egotistical academic and an egotistical financier. As Philip, Gilreath presents us with a superficially kind mentor who is ultimately manipulating the women for his own professional benefit. Kumar gives Arvind some jaunty charm, but the character is fundamentally presumptuous and obnoxious.
In the end, Shekar’s play suggests that the weight of scientific proof outweighs the desire for political and academic success, and friendship triumphs. But the relationships are not entirely convincing. Ariel’s anger and Arvind’s flippancy feel forced. Nevertheless, Queen is an intriguing endeavor to explore ethical issues of academic pursuit and scientific research that have meaning and purpose.
Queen, presented by Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati (1127 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine), continues through March 19. Tickets are $55 for adults, $29 for students and $27 for children. A face mask and proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test are required for entry. Get more info and tickets at ensemblecincinnati.org.