Madhuri Shekar’s Fascinating Queen of Moral Drama Explores the Flexibility of Truth

Opening number…

All this talk about Lea Michele and Michele Lee replacing Beanie Feldstein and Jayne Lynch in Funny Girl is smart, but if it turns out that Julie Benko is called on to play Fanny full time, I’d love the symbolism to match her with Judy Kaye, who became an overnight star when she was promoted from understudy to lead actress on On The 20th Century.

“Mathematicians love at to pretend is some absolute truth the low. But math notnot give we a direct link at god, at the universe. Thiss manmade. A tool at to help we give meaning to our existence.”

We are told that the numbers don’t lie, but when the numbers conflict with what we see in front of us, are they really telling the truth?

This is one of the hotly debated questions in Madhuri Shekar’s riveting, engaging and at one point downright thrilling moralistic drama Queen, presented by the National Asian American Theater Company (NAATCO) in partnership with Long Wharf Theatre, currently playing through July 1 at ART/New York Theaters (tickets, $35).

Avanthika Srinivasan and Stephanie Janssen
(Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

Set in 2016, the year before “Alternate Facts” entered the American vernacular, by Shekar The fiction is inspired by the genuine outrage that was building against the Monsanto Corporation, whose widely used weedkiller was eventually found to be impairing the bees’ ability to fight off deadly infections. The pollination actions of bees are said to be vital for the growth of three quarters of the world’s crops.

The play centers on Sanam (Avanthika Srinivasan), a mathematician and a Ph.D. Indian candidate who has been working for years in Santa Cruz, California, on a study of the effects of pesticides on bees. She and fellow candidate, environmental activist Ariel (Stephanie Janssen), are poised to become academic celebrities in a male-dominated field, as their findings condemning Monsanto will make the cover of a major periodical and even be quoted in a Bill sent before Congress.

But then Sanam realizes that the most recent batch of numbers doesn’t support the rest of their findings and may require years of new data to ensure correct results. Their much-loved adviser Philip (Ben Livingston) – Philip and Ariel are specified by the playwright as white – won’t hear of it and orders him to do his job and make the numbers work.

That night, Sanam dutifully goes on a date set by her parents with an Indian-American financial hotshot (Keshav Moodliar) who suggests prejudice may have ruined their job, and when she suggests to Ariel that ‘they present their new findings – despite the improbability that the problem could be easily discovered – it sets up a fascinating argument between the two,

Ariel insists that her hands-on experiences of eyewitnessing bee population declines when exposed to these pesticides are enough, and that devoting more years to research can contribute to irreversible damage. On a personal note, she is barely managing as a single mother and is counting on the success of this study to advance her career. Ariel also points out that Sanam is privileged to have wealthy parents she can count on for help if finances get tight. Sanam, on the other hand, had earlier admitted that she had no life outside of her job, suggesting that she might consider finding fault in her work like finding fault in herself.

Both women are excellent in director Aneesha Kudtarkar’s sharp and invigorating production, and are well supported by the men. It is the one that will make the public speak afterwards. If not on the bees, then on a number of issues where the conflicting parties are pushing different numbers.

There is an extraordinary and moving shared moment between cast and viewers at the end of Donja R. Love’s drama of masculinity, “soft”…

I’m not part of the group called to participate, but I felt honored to witness that black and brown people were invited to “get comfortable in their sweetness”.

“soft” (intentionally spelled lowercase) begins with a participatory moment even before entering the auditorium, as viewers are invited to view on a screen what soft means to them. (I wrote “soft and comfortable.”)

I rushed past the hallway display on entering the theater, but after appreciating the grace and passion of Love’s story of juvenile boarding school who was taught that sweetness is not the weakness, in a world that tells them otherwise, I was forced to linger a bit with the mounted portraits and the words.

Yes, I’ve thought a bit about how lucky I was to be raised by a father who encouraged me to explore my artistic passions and not engage in stereotypical harsh male behavior, but it was a moment to honor their stories.

Sunday Morning Michael Dale: Madhuri Shekar's fascinating queen of moralistic drama explores the flexibility of truth

Sunday Morning Michael Dale: Madhuri Shekar's fascinating queen of moralistic drama explores the flexibility of truth

Sunday Morning Michael Dale: Madhuri Shekar's fascinating queen of moralistic drama explores the flexibility of truth

Sunday Morning Michael Dale: Madhuri Shekar's fascinating queen of moralistic drama explores the flexibility of truth

So, Wednesday night, I think I inadvertently asked Jessica Hecht to help me with my internet connection while she was in the middle of a performance…

Let me back up a bit.

It all started the night before when I ventured to the Baryshnikov Arts Center for The Orchard, a live/virtual multimedia adaptation of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard designed and directed by Ukrainians Igor Golyak, Artistic Director of Arlekin Players Theater & Zero Gravity (zero-G) Virtual Theater Lab. Audience members can purchase separate tickets for a live show and for a virtual experience that combines discovering what’s happening on stage with other related adventures.

Sunday Morning Michael Dale: Madhuri Shekar's fascinating queen of moralistic drama explores the flexibility of truth
Mikhail Baryshnikov and Jessica Hecht
(Photo: Maria Baranova)

Carol RocamoraThe translation of provides a standard text of the playwright’s 1903 story about traditional Russian aristocracy giving way to middle-class entrepreneurship. Lyubov Ranevskaya (Hecht) and her brother, Leonid (Mark Nelson), are so deeply in debt that the house where their family has lived for generations, along with its beautiful cherry orchard, must be auctioned off. Neighbor Lopakhin (Nael Nacer), a descendant of serfs who worked their land, hatched a plan to save the day; chop down the cherry orchard and build summer houses which will surely provide a healthy annual income. But Madame Ranevskaya would not hear of such vulgarities, and instead Leonid will ask relatives for a loan.

The rest is far from standard and could be considered an interesting stylized riff on the original. Upon first entering, the scene appears bathed in blue, with park benches arranged all around and the floor covered in papers that may represent leaves. A cute mechanical dog swoops in, but the most dominant figure is the arm-like mechanism with a camera on its end that moves around and occasionally provides on-screen footage separating the audience from the actors. Characters sometimes use it for less complex tasks like holding a book or a cup of tea; perhaps a symbol of extravagance.

Student Trofimov, a suitor to Ranevskaya’s daughter Anya (Juliet Brett) is played by deaf actor John McGinty. Audience members who read the English translation of his ASL signature on the scrim can tell that Anya really isn’t paying attention to him. Also, the small role of the passing stranger is now interpreted as that of a drunken and aggressive Russian soldier (Ilia Volok).

When watching virtually, viewers can choose from multiple cameras capturing the action on stage. But before that, you must register as if you were a bidder interested in buying the property. Mikhail Baryshnikov, who plays the old servant Firs on stage, appears as Chekhov himself on screen, showing visitors around the property for sale. When the auction is in its final minutes, the audience in the theater can see the faces of the bidding virtual visitors.

As I started to explain earlier, after playing what appeared to be a virtual version of Operation, where I removed unhealthy lifestyle habits from Chekhov’s body, my screen froze and I ended up having to reboot and find my way back. I wandered into a chat room and typed a message asking for tech support, but it turned out that I was in a private room where Hecht as a character was answering questions from viewers.

She read aloud my post about internet issues and, with a confused but happy smile, apologized for only knowing about love and beauty issues.

Curtain line…

“I Hope I Get It”: Opening song for A Chorus Line and for a new musical about Americans attending Tom Stoppard’s plays.