The history play is indisputably back in fashion, not just in the form of old white men in wigs, but in plays that intersect in fascinating ways with parallel conversations about representation onstage and across entertainment media. This collision course is taking place on scales large (you know the one) and small: in this case, in The Theater for a New City’s Cabaret Theater, where The Queen by Aditya Rawai plays through June 19th, and where sixteenth century Indian Queen Durga grapples with questions of legacy, relevance, and the role of a wife and women in history written by men.
Queen Durga (Nilanjana Bose) caused her father’s kingdom to crumble after an impetuous marriage to King Amar (Alok Tewari) destroyed a political alliance. Now she is determined to save her husband’s lands and power from being absorbed by Emperor Akbar, in spite of the fact that Amar has set her aside for a new, younger wife. Though for those (like myself) who are unfamiliar with this history, Rawal may not make the nuances entirely clear, but the emotional stakes of Durga and Amar’s debate are always palpable. Bose and Tewari have a compelling, sparky chemistry, and their debates (plus one immensely touching flashback) are the most exciting scenes in the play.
Rawai cites Macbeth and Medea among his inspirations for the play, and like the powerful leading ladies in those works, Durga is cursed with being a bright, passionate, aggressive woman surrounded by somewhat pathetic men. Similarly, Bose is the towering force at the center of the play. Grounded and elegant, she controls every scene, and finds humor and charm in Durga’s borderline obsessive anger and despair over her abandonment. Though Tewari’s Amar can almost match her, he cannot beat her. And her son Vir (Aman Soni) doesn’t even come close.
Though black box spaces can sometimes feel oppressively present and theatrical, Christina Watanabe’s set and lights are simple but very effective. With live music by Rhythm Tolee and Joseph Blaha’s lush costumes, director Gwynn Macdonald has conjured up an effective and compelling sense of place. However, a sense of time proves more elusive: Rawai’s dialogue flits between the poetic and contemporary, and while plenty of historical plays make effective use of ahistorical language, the historicity of the setting seemed to relate only to the circumstances, not to the day-to-day elements of the characters’ lives.
The play’s conclusion also stutters, though Bose’s final moments are well-staged and well-carried. Though I am all for concision, at just over an hour, the play perhaps could have stood for more time to build to the supposedly-explosive family argument that fell a touch flat, and perhaps to establish a bit more of the political and cultural detail that would help the characters’ debates feel richer.
But the questions that the play raises as a whole are timely and interesting. My own unfamiliarity with such a complex and plainly interesting period is proof in itself that more such stories need to be brought to our stages and screens. The irony of Durga’s lament that stories are told about kings, not queens, while she stands center stage, commanding the attention and interest of all, likewise speaks for itself. Aditya Rawai’s interest in undertold histories fits well with the present and much-needed renaissance of the history play in a new and more diverse form, and his ambitious subject matter and eye for compelling historical incident can only lead him to more stories that deserve to be told.