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Sunday Morning Michael Dale: Madhuri Shekar's Fascinating Moralistic Drama Queen Explores The Flexibility of Truth

Also, a touching communal moment in Donja R. Love's "soft" and Baryshnikov takes Chekhov on a virtual tour in The Orchard

Opening Number...

All this talk about Lea Michele and Michele Lee replacing Beanie Feldstein and Jane Lynch in Funny Girl is clever, but if it turns out that Julie Benko is pegged to play Fanny full time, I'd like the symbolism of matching her with Judy Kaye, who became a headline-making overnight star when she was promoted from understudy to leading lady of On The 20th Century.

"Mathematicians like to pretend there is some absolute truth out there. But mathematics doesn't give us a direct link to god, to the universe. It's man-made. A tool to help us make sense of our existence."

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

That's one of the issues hotly debated in Madhuri Shekar's fascinating, engaging and at one point downright thrilling moralistic drama, Queen, presented by the National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO) in partnership with Long Wharf Theatre, now playing through July 1st at A.R.T./New York Theatres (tickets, $35).

Sunday Morning Michael Dale: Madhuri Shekar's Fascinating Moralistic Drama Queen Explores The Flexibility of Truth
Avanthika Srinivasan and Stephanie Janssen
(Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

Set in 2016, the year before "alternative facts" entered the American vernacular, Shekar's fiction is inspired by the real outrage that was building against the Monsanto company, whose widely-used weedkiller was eventually found to damage the ability of honeybees to fight off deadly infections. The pollinating actions of honeybees is said to be vital to the growth of three quarters of the world's crops.

The focus of the play is on Sanam (Avanthika Srinivasan), a mathematician and a Ph.D. candidate from India who's been working for years in Santa Cruz, California on a study of the effects of pesticides on bees. She and her fellow candidate, ecology activist Ariel (Stephanie Janssen), are about to become academic celebrities in a male-dominated field, as their findings condemning Monsanto are to be a cover story in a major periodical and even cited in a bill sent before congress.

But then Sanam realizes that most recent batch of numbers don't support the rest of their findings and that it may require years of new data to insure correct results. Their highly-regarded advisor Philip (Ben Livingston) - both Philip and Ariel are specified by the playwright to be white - won't hear of it and instructs her to do her job and make the numbers work.

That night Sanam dutifully goes on a date set up by her parents with an Indian-American finance hotshot (Keshav Moodliar) who suggests that bias may have been mucking up their work, and when she suggests to Ariel that they come forward with their new findings - despite the unlikelihood that the glitch can be easily discovered - it sets up a riveting argument between the two,

Ariel insists that her hands-on experiences eyewitnessing the declining bee population when exposed to these pesticides is enough, and that putting more years into research can contribute to irreversible harm. On a personal note, she's been barely getting by as a single mother and is depending on the success of this study to help advance her career. Ariel also points out that Sanam has the privilege of wealthy parents she can depend on for help if finances get tight. Sanam, on the other hand, had admitted earlier that she has no life outside of her work, suggesting she may regard finding a flaw in her work as finding a flaw in herself.

Both women are excellent in director Aneesha Kudtarkar's crisp and invigorating production, and are well-supported by the men. This is one that will get audiences talking afterwards. If not about bees, then about any number of issues where conflicting sides push different numbers.

There's an extraordinary, touching communal moment between actors and audience members at the end of Donja R. Love's drama of masculinity, "soft"...

I'm not a member of the group called upon to participate, but I felt honored to witness as Black and Brown people were invited to "make yourself comfortable in your softness."

"soft" (intentionally spelled in all lower case) begins with a participatory moment even before you enter the auditorium, as viewers are invited to post on a display what softness means to them. (I wrote "gentle and comfortable.")

I rushed past the hallway display as I entered the theatre, but after enjoying the grace and passion of Love's story of juvenile boarding school students being taught that softness is not weakness, in a world that tells them otherwise, I was compelled to linger a bit with the mounted portraits and words.

Yes I thought a bit about how I was fortunate to be raised by a father who encouraged me to explore my artistic passions and not to engage in stereotypical tough masculine behavior, but this was a moment to honor their stories.

Sunday Morning Michael Dale: Madhuri Shekar's Fascinating Moralistic Drama Queen Explores The Flexibility of Truth

Sunday Morning Michael Dale: Madhuri Shekar's Fascinating Moralistic Drama Queen Explores The Flexibility of Truth

Sunday Morning Michael Dale: Madhuri Shekar's Fascinating Moralistic Drama Queen Explores The Flexibility of Truth

Sunday Morning Michael Dale: Madhuri Shekar's Fascinating Moralistic Drama Queen Explores The Flexibility of Truth

So, on 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 backtrack a little.

It all began the night before when I ventured out to the Baryshnikov Arts Center for The Orchard, a multi-media live/virtual adaptation of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard conceived and directed by Ukrainian-born Igor Golyak, artistic director of Arlekin Players Theatre & Zero Gravity (zero-G) Virtual Theater Lab. Audience members can buy separate tickets for a live performance and for a virtual experience that combines seeing what's on stage with other related adventures.

Sunday Morning Michael Dale: Madhuri Shekar's Fascinating Moralistic Drama Queen Explores The Flexibility of Truth
Mikhail Baryshnikov and Jessica Hecht
(Photo: Maria Baranova)

Carol Rocamora's translation provides a standard text from the playwright's 1903 story of traditional Russian aristocracy giving way to middle class entrepreneurship. Lyubov Ranevskaya (Hecht) and her brother, Leonid (Mark Nelson), have fallen so deeply into debt that the home where their family has lived for generations, along with its magnificent cherry orchard, must be auctioned off. Neighbor Lopakhin (Nael Nacer), a descendant from serfs who worked on their land, has worked up a plan to save the day; cut down the cherry orchard and put up summer homes that will surely provide a healthy annual income. But Madame Ranevskaya wouldn't hear of such vulgarities and instead Leonid will ask for a loan from relatives.

The rest is far from standard, and might be regarded as an interesting stylized riff on the original. When first entering, the stage appears bathed in blue, with park benches placed about and the floor covered with papers that may represent leaves. A cute mechanical dog scurries about, but the most dominating figure is the arm-like mechanism with a camera on its end that maneuvers around and occasionally provides visuals on the scrim separating the audience from the actors. The characters sometimes use it for less-complex tasks like holding a book or a teacup; perhaps a symbol of extravagance.

The 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 signing on the scrim can catch that Anya really isn't paying attention to him. Also, the small role of the stranger who walks by is now interpreted as a drunk and aggressive Russian soldier (Ilia Volok).

When watching virtually, viewers can choose from several cameras capturing the onstage action. But before that occurs, you must register as though you're a bidder interested in purchasing the property. Mikhail Baryshnikov, who plays the elderly servant Firs onstage, appears as Chekhov himself onscreen, giving visitors a tour of the property for sale. When the auction is in it's final minutes, the theatre audience can see the webcammed faces of the bidding virtual visitors.

As I started to explain earlier, after playing what seemed like a virtual version of Operation, where I removed unhealthy lifestyle habits from Chekhov's body, my screen froze and I wound up having to restart and find my way back. I wandered into a chat room and typed up a message asking for technical assistance, but it turned out I was in a private room where Hecht, in character, was answering viewer questions.

She read aloud my message about Internet trouble and, with a confused but cheerful smile, apologized that she was only knowledgeable on matters of love and beauty.

Curtain Line...

"I Hope I Get It": Opening song for both A Chorus Line and for a new musical about Americans attending Tom Stoppard plays.



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