Erin Roche is a graduate of Columbia College Chicago with a degree in Vocal Performance, a strong theater background, and an even stronger desire to showcase the best that Chicago talent has to offer.
(left to right) Salar Ardebili and Rob Frankel in Interrobang Theatre Project’s Midwest premiere of THE NORTH POOL by Rajiv Joseph, directed by James Yost. Photo by Emily Schwartz.
Review: Rajiv Joseph’s THE NORTH POOL at Interrobang Theatre Project
Unseemly goings on have surfaced at Sheffield High. Vandalism, bomb threats, and a student’s suicide cast a dark cloud over contentious Vice Principal Danielson and Middle-Eastern student Khadim Asman. The air is uncomfortable as you step into Set Designer Greg Pinsolneault’s fully-realized educator’s office, complete with fluorescent lights, file cabinets, and papers strewn about on a standard-issue mechanical desk. Following afternoon announcements, Danielson calls Khadim in for a meeting under the guise of discussing an unexcused absence, and a sense of foreboding descends as you bear witness to a nightmarish cross-examination that addresses much deeper issues. THE NORTH POOL fits into Interrobang’s sixth season by delving into the theme of unnatural disasters with a vicious exploration of guilt and how we cope with responsibility.
Rob Frankel is persuasively repugnant as smug and ignorant Vice Principal Dr. Danielson, who, despite his alumni status and 14 years of employment at Sheffield High School, has been passed over for a promotion in favor an African-American woman—his opinions on which display thinly veiled animosity towards minorities. This busybody with a superiority complex pulls senior student Khadim into his office after-hours, but is the unexcused absence truly the reason for it? Danielson exudes an exceedingly condescending cadence, reveling in his good cop/bad cop routine, complete with repetitive questioning and harassment that borders on gaslighting. Ironically, a bulletin hangs on his noticeboard that reads, “Stop Bullying Now.”
Salar Ardebili is unequivocally Khadim Asman, radiating a cavalier disposition interrupted by intermittent moments of outrage seeping through with careful nuance. Khadim is a new student to Sheffield, having recently left prestigious Eagleton Academy for reasons undisclosed. A Syrian-American with a myriad of languages and travels under his belt, he is much sharper than the slippery “wolf” and potential vandal/bomb planter Danielson accuses him of being.
The two face off in a volatile encounter that veers off in unpredictable directions, uprooting truths that blindside you. Turns out this game of cat-and-mouse is about much more than an unexcused absence or a bomb threat. It’s about how each character deals with the inner torture and accountability following the suicide of a female student with whom both shared a unique but vastly different bond.
“Nobody is contained by a file.” This phrase, uttered rather sarcastically by Dr. Danielson, sets the theme for THE NORTH POOL, a multi-layered allegory for prejudice, insinuating in nearly every detail that there is more to see than meets the eye. Take the obvious subject—Khadim. Worldly and intelligent Khadim, belittled by xenophobic Danielson’s racial profiling, has been meticulously researched by his inquisitor and reduced to naught but a troublemaker with a trust fund. Zoom out to the setting of this relentless interrogation—Danielson’s office is deceptively ordinary while a secret crawlspace lies just behind a map on the wall. Zoom out farther to The North Pool—not actually a pool at all, but a bomb shelter beneath the school out of which a tunnel leads to the hidden hatch in Danielson’s office. In fact, the metaphor of The North Pool deepens here by acting not as an important location to the story, but as a symbol for the claustrophobia borne of both Khadim’s detention in this office and Danielson’s feelings of responsibility for Leah’s death.
Lastly, take one more step back to yourself. Rajiv Joseph’s pressure-cooker of a play reveals that you are not merely an audience member, but a spectator at a turbulent tennis match—power volleying feverishly between student and teacher. Psychological crucible THE NORTH POOL ultimately culminates in an oddly cathartic detonation, cutting both captor and captive down to their common denominator—maddening guilt.