Theatergoers will find Khadim a new character in the American theater: an entitled, cosmopolitan, Middle Eastern teenager, born in Damascus to Iranian parents, who speaks Farsi, Arabic, French, and Italian in addition to English.
The North Pool by Rajiv Joseph. Directed by Giovanna Sardelli. Set design by Brian Prather. Costume design by Amy Clark. Lighting design by Clifton Taylor. Sound design by Daniel Kluger. Presented by the Barrington Stage Company at the St. Germain Stage, Sydell and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, Pittsfield, MA, through Aug. 11.
By Helen Epstein.
Two of American playwright Rajiv Joseph’s plays were produced in the Berkshires for the first time this summer: Animals Out of Paper last month at the Chester Theatre; now, The North Pool at Barrington Stage. It’s easy to see why. Although I’d never heard his name before, Joseph has a decade of theater and TV credits. He has an unusual sensibility and a set of useful interests. He combines an almost architectural interest in dramatic structure with an excellent ear for dialogue and a fascination for characters who say and do the unexpected.
In a disarmingly candid panel discussion with the 38-year-old playwright and North Pool director Giovanna Sardelli last week, Joseph provided biographical context for his work. He grew up in Ohio, son of an Indian father and mother of European descent. He went to public high school in Ohio, spent three years in the Peace Corps in Senegal, and got his MFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, bypassing the theatrical hothouses of Brown and Yale. He started out wanting to write novels but discovered his calling in theater.
A good thing for us, because Joseph’s work is the freshest and most intelligent new writing for the theater I’ve seen and heard in a long time. Joseph spins unpredictable new variations on old themes and had me wondering almost till the last minutes on what the two characters of The North Pool would say or do next, what turn their relationship would take, where they would end up when the play was over.
The 80-minute, one-act two-hander opens on Brian Prather’s meticulously literal set of a vice-principal’s office in an American, public high school. If you’ve recently spent time in such a place, as I have at my sons’ Lexington High School, you will marvel at the spot-on recreation of the space, colors, and textures: cinder-block walls, metal furniture and under-sized plastic chairs; shuttered glass windows onto a corridor of lockers; a large map and an American flag; the large cardboard boxes in which teachers and administrators customarily store files.
Three of those awful high school ringtones come over the P.A. system introducing the voice of vice-principal Dr. Danielson making his daily announcement and wishing the students a “safe and happy spring break.”
As he is speaking, an 18-year-old transfer student wearing a backpack enters the administrator’s office.
Put a male teenager named Khadim Asmaan and Sheffield High’s white, male administrator onstage in 2012, and you are entering territory whose clichés and everyday routines have been minutely mined by American literature as well as the contemporary media. Columbine, Aurora, and Virginia Tech hover in the subtext, as well as Guantanamo, The World Trade Center, Iran, Al Quaida.
Almost every prop—the personal file, the back-back, a PVC pipe—resonates wordlessly for the audience as does the situation itself: “detention” in the context of transgressing school rules; “interrogation” in the larger context of cultural profiling, fear of vandalism/terrorism, and contemporary international relations. Sheffield High has had its spate of hijinks, including a swimming a pool “turned to jello” but also more serious vandalism: equipment stolen, windows broken, the fire alarm system repeatedly disabled.
Khadim, brilliantly acted by young actor Babak Tafti who speaks a convincing, British-inflected, Middle Eastern English, assumes that Dr. Danielson is fishing for clues implicating him. He has recently transferred into Sheffield from an elite private school. His parents are in Riyadh, and Danielson has assumed that he is a Saudi. At first he appears to be a typical, well-behaved, visiting student although his manner and mono-syllabic replies to questions indicate his acculturation to American life. In his movements as well as delivery of his lines, Tafti conveys the wide range of Kadim’s shifting states of mind as he sizes up the situation and tries to master his fury at being trapped alone in an empty school building with a large and clearly resentful man who informs him that he used to be the school’s wrestling coach and was passed over for the job of principal by an African-American woman with a PhD.
Remi Sandri, a veteran actor facing the difficult task of making an unsympathetic administrative figure from many of our own lives as well as in The North Pool more than a straw man—complicated, sympathetic, if not entirely likable—inhabits his character equally well, as he peels off layers of his own and Khadim’s stories with the arrogance that comes with power—even if it’s relatively limited power over one high school student.
“Why are you sitting in the vice-principal’s office when you should be going home and having fun with your friends?” he asks Khadim.
“Yeah,” Khadim responds. “I mean, Dr. Danielson, is there a problem?”
“Have you made friends since you’ve come to Sheffield High?”
“Yeah, you know . . . high school is more than just books and classes. It’s a social construct.”
Giovanna Sardelli, who has worked closely with the playwright on other productions and directed the premiere of this play last year in Palo Alto, has made this a production that keeps moving and doesn’t run out of steam. While some viewers will focus on a classic cat-and-mouse game between interrogator and interrogated and think of Dostoevsky, others will think of coming-of-age novels set in high schools and be drawn into the imagined lives of two strong characters and a highly imaginative meditation on some of the most urgent issues—such as ever riskier sex, recording devices and violence—for adolescents these days. All will find Khadim a new character in the American theater: an entitled, cosmopolitan, Middle Eastern teenager, born in Damascus to Iranian parents, who speaks Farsi, Arabic, French, and Italian in addition to English.
I was delighted that Barrington Stage chose to produce The North Pool and hope they will do more of Joseph’s plays. This one should travel far and wide. My companions and I discussed its twists and turns for hours after it ended. We all had different takes on its vivid characters and complex story but all of us were impressed by this excellent production.
Helen Epstein is the author of Joe Papp and other books about the arts.