Chicago Theater Review: THE NORTH POOL (Interrobang Theatre Project at The Athenaeum Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on May 30, 2016

in Theater-Chicago

INTERROGATING AN AUDIENCE

It’s the afterschool special from hell: The North Pool is that rare you-can-hear-a-pin-drop play. In a mere 80 minutes, playwright Rajiv Joseph shrewdly and sharply changes the terms and tones in a purportedly ordinary conference between a vice principal and a graduating senior. James Yost’s engrossing, entangling staging, a Midwest premiere from Interrobang Theatre Project, builds the secrets, the stakes, and the suspense behind a seemingly vacuous post-classes interview. Watching Joseph’s tensile one-act, you imagine several different plays as it unspools–until Joseph’s real revelations, which I dare not divulge, make it something else altogether.

Salar Ardebili and Rob Frankel in Interrobang Theatre Project’s THE NORTH POOL by Rajiv Joseph, directed by James Yost.

It’s the start of a spring-semester break at Sheffield High School, home of 3,478 complex works in progress. Tired from a long day of educational challenges, Sheffield alumni and second-in-command Dr. Danielson (Rob Frankel) is holding an hour-long detention. His “captive” is Khadim Asman (Salar Ardebili), a rich, 18-year-old Syrian-American disciplinary challenge whose parents are currently in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Toying cat-and-mouse with a kid he calls a “wolf,” Danielson employs an irritatingly unctuous and falsely familiar conversational style. An inquiry about an unexcused “eight period” absence becomes an interrogation that turns on itself as it works both ways.

Danielson, we soon learn, must deal with too many high school crises–vandalism of the school pool, pranks like false fire alarms, bomb threats, drug dealing, and, most immediately, the recent suicide of a girl named Leah. Doggedly persevering, he’s made his motto “Pride of work is pride of self.” Despite being passed over by an African-American candidate for principal and the fact that his fiancée just broke up with him (a source of gossip if not scandal), he wants to believe that he’s a good guy, an effective, if old school, administrator. He sees himself as a “shepherd” to the students, even to this black sheep.

Salar Ardebili and Rob Frankel in Interrobang Theatre Project’s Midwest premiere of THE NORTH POOL by Rajiv Joseph, directed by Co-Artistic Director James Yost

In contrast, Khadim is a maverick transfer student from Eagleton Academy, an elite preparatory school (his reasons for leaving it remain undisclosed). A sullen overachiever, the cosmopolitan Khadim speaks six languages, has traveled extensively, and will never have to work. He becomes increasingly defensive as Danielson’s questions grow more personal: Khadim discovers that this avuncular flunky knows much more about him than he ever guessed, including the contents of the locker(s) that this “outsider” maintains in the school basement.

Contradicting the stereotypical banality of set designer Greg Pinsoneault’s drab vice principal’s office, the school, like Khadim’s locker, contains hidden mysteries, like a series of crawlspaces and tunnels leading to the “north pool,” code word for an abandoned fallout shelter from the Cold War era. Knowing the school’s darker depths makes Danielson occupationally suspicious. Like a Homeland Security investigator, he’s sure that Khadim, who he all but racially profiles, is lying about his extracurricular activities. Why is this trust fund brat hoarding possibly shoplifted clothes for resale and an animal antibiotic for sick birds? Why does he treasure a flute that was intended for another?

Salar Ardebili and Rob Frankel in Interrobang Theatre Project’s Midwest premiere of THE NORTH POOL by Rajiv Joseph, directed by Co-Artistic Director James Yost.

Danielson’s “third degree” finally focuses on Leah, a girl they both knew whose recent sex scandal may have motivated her self-murder. Now Khadim and Danielson’s torrent of accusations start to dovetail. The result is a scary but ultimately redemptive spiral of shared guilt and painful forgiveness.

With its discoveries mutating by the minute, The North Pool refuses to go anywhere you think it will (or should). Joseph’s lacerating honesty is richly reflected in two exquisitely nuanced performances. Frankel plays the earnest but possibly xenophobic vice principal with disarming affability: He’s breezy, chatty and very dangerous, good cop and bad cop rolled into one nasty questioner. Ardebili’s Kahdim bristles with adolescent bravado (“I can do anything I want!”) and its accompanying angst. If he’s hiding things, he has his reasons.

Salar Ardebili and Rob Frankel in Interrobang Theatre Project’s Midwest premiere of THE NORTH POOL by Rajiv Joseph - directed by Co-Artistic Director James Yost.

Director Yost cunningly orchestrates their escalating encounter, a crescendo of secret sharing and self-exposes. It’s fascinating how the power imbalance between school official and problem pupil slowly gets leveled. Well, in a seemingly unequal clash of characters that’s the only way that truth (and accountability) will out or humanity can happen. Watching Joseph’s taut work achieve that precarious balance is a very guilty pleasure.

photos by Emily Schwartz

The North Pool
Interrobang Theatre Project
The Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport
Thurs and Fri at 7:30; Sat at 2 & 7:30; Sun at 2
scheduled to end on June 26, 2016
for tickets, call 773.935.6875 or visit visit Interrobang

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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