Ariel Speigel is certain that chemicals manufactured by Monsanto are killing off the honey bees essential for pollination in food production. She’s been working for five years with statistician Sanam Shah to prove that.
They are within days of publishing their findings when a new set of data invalidates their conclusions. Should they fudge their findings and publish or continue collecting information until they have more data to support or dispute their hypothesis?
That is the major dilemma faced by the scientists in Penobscot Theatre Company’s production of “Queen” at the Bangor Opera House that features one of the most diverse groups of people on and off stage ever to work on a show in Bangor.
It is an engaging evening of theater that sends audiences out the doors thinking about the value of human connections versus scientific pursuits and the future of the planet.
Overall, it is the best show produced this season by new Artistic Director Jonathan Berry, who arrived from Chicago in June, and has used his connections there to bring a unique group of artists from varying backgrounds not easily found in Maine.
The cast and the technical work are perfect and with a close to sold-out house opening night, sitting in the audience felt a bit like settling into a happy hive.
Playwright Madhuri Shekar, best known for writing the screenplay for “Evil Eye,” a 2020 film that aired on Amazon Prime, workshopped the play in the mid-2010s before it premiered at the Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago in 2017. Two years later, it won Outstanding Original Full Length Script in the New York Innovative Theatre Awards.
The scientific arc of the play tracks the research on bee colony collapse disorder, which raised alarms in 2008 when 60 percent of honey bee hives collapsed, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Since then, the number of hives with the disorder has fallen significantly.
The central plot of “Queen” makes it sound like a grim story but there is plenty of comedy sprinkled in the script of the 90-minute or so one-act play to make it an enjoyable evening at the theater.
Bangladeshi-American director Kaiser Ahmed, who serves as artistic director of the Jackalope Theatre Company in Chicago, does not overwhelm the audience with the show’s science and mathematics. He expertly weaves the play’s plotlines into a tapestry of emotion and intellect as Sanam and Ariel struggle to balance their careers with the demands of their families.
Ariel is a single mother of a 2-year-old while Sanam’s family wants her to marry and continually sets her up with potential suitors, who expect her to give up her career.
As Sanam, Karina Patel expertly portrays a scientist who is laser-focused on her career but is not immune to the pressure of family. The London-born actress of Indian descent beautifully shows the audience what it is like to juggle those demands.
Patel is best when depicting Sanam’s passion for the work, the purity of the numbers and the search for scientific truth.
Aimee Gerow, who portrays Ariel, has worked with Ten Bucks Theatre and Penobscot Theatre for more than a decade. This is Gerow’s best work since she was in William Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives of Windsor” in 2017.
She perfectly captures Ariel’s certainty about why the bees are dying and her insecurity about being a first-generation college student and single mom.
Much of the comedy in “Queen” is provided by Rahul Joshi, the Indian actor who plays Sanam’s suitor, Arvind Patel. The actor gives Arvind a smarmy charm that is nearly irresistible to all but Sanam.
The character challenges Sanam’s assumptions about her data and about romance in a way that is disarming and effective because of Joshi’s intense portrayal of the Wall Street trader.
Rounding out the cast is Frank Bachman as Dr. Philip Hayes, the professor heading up the project on which the research is focused. The front-of-house manager for the theater, Bachman flawlessly brings bluster and a bit of the bully to the role to make Hayes recognizable to every theatergoer who’s been to college.
Not only did Berry seek out diversity on stage, the technical team for the show also has varied ethnic backgrounds.
Designer Sotirios Livaditis created set pieces that resemble the inside of a beehive. But the precise squares also evoke the orderliness of science and math. The green lights that pulsate behind the blue squares somehow resemble the colors of the Earth as seen from space. These visual elements go a long way to giving the audience the feeling that they are, metaphorically at least, in a beehive.
Stefani Azores-Gococo’s costumes, Jennifer Fok’s lighting and Thomas Dixon’s sound design all come together to create a beautiful, fluid production. Props designer Ben Wetzel deserves a standing ovation for creating a hive sans the bees that is so realistic it practically buzzes.
After a rough start to his first season, Barry has hit one out of the park with this production by bringing to Bangor an intriguing work with an immensely talented and diverse cast and crew.
Most regular audience members will not see themselves on stage in “Queen” and that is a wonderful change of pace for theater in Bangor.
Penobscot Theatre Company’s production of “Queen” will run through April 16 at the Bangor Opera House, 131 Main St., Bangor. There are several special pre- and post-show events scheduled with this show. For information, visit penobscottheatre.org or call 942-3333.