Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Uma Paranjpe and Kjerstine Rose Anderson
Photo by Kevin Berne
Seven billion bees over a ten-year period, just disappeared–not died, but disappeared with no signs of their bodies remaining. Without honeybees, eventually 90% of the food grown in the world would be gone. Why are the bees moving toward extinction at such an alarming rate? Is it a virus, radiation, a mutation?

After six years of field research and the creation of a complicated mathematical model, two researchers at UC Santa Cruz have data finally proving what so many have suspected: The neonicotinoid pesticides made by Monsanto are responsible for the so-called Colony Collapse Disorder. But wait, why does their last set of data not follow the predicted curve? It is so clear what the answer is and who the corporate culprit is. What's wrong with these final data?

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley is presenting Madhuri Shekar's Queen, a captivating, nail-biting dive into the scientific, mathematical workings of two brilliant young women as they feverishly near the finish line of their multi-year, career-defining research that could help save the world's agriculture industry and food supply. In just a few days, ecology scientist Ariel Spiegel and applied mathematician Sanam Srinivasan along, with their supervising professor, Dr. Phillip Hayes, will announce their findings and find themselves on the cover of the nation's most prestigious science journal, Nature. But a final data run is not showing what all the data in the past six years has shown; and the young women only have a matter of days to understand why and fix it.

Into her masterly conceived script, Madhuri Shekar has woven an intricate web of the sometimes complementary and often opposing forces of friendship, the desire to do good, career aspirations, family pressures, love interests, scientific methods, mathematical principles, and finally and maybe above all, integrity. In the hands of director Miriam A. Laube, the one-hour, forty-minute (no intermission) play showing the threatened unravelling of years of dedicated research to prove what everyone already suspects occurs with the pace, profundity, and power that makes Queen electrically engaging. Her play also has eye-opening relevance to recent headlines about academic research and the suddenly collapsed careers of the presidents of Harvard and Stanford.

Kjerstine Rose Anderson and Uma Paranjpe each bring to full bear the intensely emotional and intellectual drive and the life-sacrificing devotion that Ariel and Sanam (respectively) have been giving to their work for the past six years. Their friendship is deep and evident, like that of sisters, but the quickly evolving circumstances are about to challenge and maybe even dissolve in a flash those feelings.

Each faces her own unique pressures separate from the day-in, day-out research. The often bubbling with excitement and enthusiasm Ariel is a single mother of a two-year-old and from a poor but deeply impacting background of parents as beekeepers. The more sedate and stylish Sanam has a well-off family in India who are actively working–to Sanam's chagrin–to arrange a marriage for their aging (almost thirty) daughter (the latest attempt being the grandson of a golfing friend of her grandfather). But a crying baby and a set-up blind date must now play second-fiddle to this latest data set that needs a quick fix–something only Sanam's mathematical genius can do. And the more Sanam is finding issues that go back to their original research design, the more the two colleagues are becoming near-combatants.

In the height of their dilemma comes a cocky, crass-talking and acting, hot-shot derivative trader from New York, Arvind Rangarajan (Devin Kolluri). Pausing for a quick 11 p.m. dinner date with the young man her family expects soon to be her husband, Sanam is immediately repulsed–especially when he hears about her research and exalts her hated Monsanto as a great "job-creator" and "innovator" (and stock market choice).

But Arvind's prowess in poker as well as his own statistical genius prove to be just what Sanam needs to help her look for the needed answer to a chart whose curve is going the wrong way; and the more they work at the whiteboard drawing formulas, the more something else starts to add up between them. Devin Kolluri terrifically conveys an almost-out-of-control egoist and narcissistic Arvind as well as an attractive, fun, and possibly even capable-of-loving Arvind.

Mike Ryan is the on-the-side supervising professor, Dr. Hayes, who is eagerly awaiting the paper from his young researchers that he will deliver that will seal his future and bring in the big bucks sure to follow the Nature publication and a promised legislative hearing in D.C. against the monstrous Monsanto. His Dr. Hayes is chomping at the bit for Ariel and Sanam to "get the job done," and his own monstrous side is not immune from erupting as the threesome's ideas and values begin to collide.

Nina Ball has placed the intense manipulations of data, formulas, principles, and values into the protective hive of bees, a layered honeycomb that symbolizes the kind of protective, secluded arena that a scientific lab should be at its best. But this honeycomb has breaks in it, and one wonders how long it will hold together as more and more information and insight begin to drain this particular scientific lab of the formulated foundations built there over the past several years.

James Ard has created a sound design that combines the buzzing of bees with music to call into play the heritage of Sanam's India. Kent Dorsey's lighting helps focus the changing moods of the quickly shifting internal scenes and eventually brings us to the sunlit outside where the bees themselves live.

It is amazing how much technical, mathematical, and scientific information Madhuri Shekar has included in the script of Queen; the information presented is never confusing but always enlightening and educating. The insights we gain about topics like confirmation bias, what "truth" really is in science, the difference between scientific and mathematical modeling and research, and the pressures and demands on those doing research in universities–especially when they are women–cannot help but allow us to read tomorrow's news with a much better perspective. And as presented by the excellent cast, director, and creative team at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, our meaningful classroom experience in this lab setting is, in the end, nothing short of highly entertaining and enjoyable.

Queen runs through March 31, 2024, at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto CA. For tickets and information, please visit or call 877-662-8978.