Friday, April 5, 2013

“The North Pool” - Where no one is who or what they seem

By Judd Hollander

Perception or the misinterpretation of it is the key in Rajvi Joseph's tension-filled The North Pool at the Vineyard Theatre. It's April, 2007 in Middle America and the beginning of spring break at a public high school when Khadim Asmaan (Babak Tafti), a Syrian-born student, is summoned to the office of Dr. Danielson (Stephen Barker Turner), the vice principal. Danielson, a sort of overbearing fellow who always tries to have his finger on the pulse of things, starts asking Khadim leading question about the young man's life, his parents and why he suddenly transferred from a prestigious private institution to his current location, which is definitely a step down on the academic status ladder. For Khadim's part, he tries to answer Danielson's questions simply and calmly, but there is no denying the white elephant of smoldering anger in the room; kind of like a bomb waiting to go off. Though exactly when or under what circumstances this will happen is unknown.

This uncertainty is the hinge on which this riveting two-character play turns. The not knowing where the narrative is going or which of these two people is in the right or wrong of the matter. Tafti and Turner do an excellent job with their characters and also play off each other wonderfully, as one waits to see who just will come out on top of their verbal gymnastics covering such subjects as small talk, school history, bomb shelters, off-campus parties, drugs, first amendment rights, Arab-American relations and the death of another student, one with which both Khadim and Dr. Danielson had close ties.

The script provides numerous twists and turns with common stereotypes at times running true to form while at other moments being turned completely on their heads. Danielson for example seems to be more than a little obsessive concerning his love for the school, harboring a feeling of protectiveness for his perceived fiefdom as well as a bitterness for not receiving what he sees as a well-deserved promotion. Yet he is also rather intelligent and intuitive with little going on around him of which he is not aware. Also, like Khadim he plays his cards close to the vest, not showing his hand until his opponent provides him an opening through which to strike.

As for Khadim, over the course of the play he undergoes a metamorphosis from a scared 18 year-old to someone with a swagger in his voice who takes delight in always having the upper hand. Tafti imbues the character with intelligence, purpose, anger and sensitivity. Particularly interesting, and again this goes back to a matter of perception, is the fact that Khadim was assigned a locker in the basement of the school, with both Khadim and Danielson having conflicting opinions as to why this was so.

Joseph's script is also tautly brought to life by the show's director, Giovanna Sardelli, who not only keeps the play moving nicely with the tension continually on the rise, but is also able to add feelings of claustrophobia and isolation into the mix. The school is completely empty except for these two characters, with Danielson's office often feeling more like an interrogation room than anything else. The scenic design by Donyale Werle is especially good in this regard, the playing area looking like a cluttered but somewhat ordered school office.

Well acted and presented, with no extra padding or extraneous speeches The North Pool is definitely a play worth watching and one which offers the audience a chance to realize, as the two characters in the show ultimately do, the dangers of taking both matter and people at simple face value.

The North Pool

Featuring: Babak Tafti (Khadim Asmaan), Stephen Barker Turner (Dr. Danielson)

Written by Rajiv Joseph
Scenic Design: Donyale Werle
Costume Design: Paloma Young
Lighting Design: David Lander
Sound Design: Daniel Kluger
Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis
Production Stage Manager: Megan Smith
Production Manager: David Nelson
Press Representative: Sam Rudy Media Relations
Casting: Henry Russell Bergstein, CSA
Directed by Giovanna Sardelli

The Vineyard Theatre
108 East 15th Street
Closed: March 24, 2013

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