Review: Vertigo’s ‘Pool (No Water)’

A five-against-one story of friendship and Schadenfreude

It would be an understatement to call Mark Ravenhill’s Pool (No Water) “mean-spirited.” In fact, it’s misanthropic to the marrow—a sort of Lord of the Flies for artistic adults, wherein five “friends” cannibalize both the success and the struggles of a sixth member of their social group. As Morrissey once crooned so memorably, “We hate it when our friends become successful.”

In the pool at Vertigo. Photo: Gary Norman

In the pool at Vertigo. Photo: Gary Norman

The woman in the crosshairs of Theatre Vertigo‘s new production (played by Christy Bigelow) is tall, blonde, and shapely in a red bikini—a classic set of attributes to engender envy. She’s also the one who acquires the titular pool and invites her (ahem) “friends” over for a celebratory swim. To set the mood, scenic designer Ted Jonathan Gold has transformed the entire Shoebox Theatre space into a swimming pool basin, painted in cool aquamarine tile patterns. The edges of the stage space even curve up to meet the risers, a hint that, like it or not, we’ve all plunged into the deep end together.

This feeling is reiterated by immersive—one might even say invasive—blocking by the rest of the ensemble (Stephanie Cordell, Nathan Dunkin, Joel Harmon, Tyler Ryan, Holly Wigmore, and R. David Wyllie), who intermittently narrate from disbursed house seats and rush the stage. Through Jessica Wallenfels’ frenzied, high-energy choreography, they pantomime swimming, dancing, drug using, and feigning support for their “friend.” At one point, they describe but don’t deliver full nudity … probably wise considering Shoebox’s intimate space, or a fear that such a scene would upstage the rest of the story.

Sometimes while they speak, actors make pointed eye contact with particular audience members as if to convince them of something: “It’s important that you believe this part: We really do care,” the narrators urge … unreliably.

Without giving too much away, the script points out the following puzzlers:

  • Why do we impulsively feel tender toward the weak, but resentful of the strong?
  • When someone is inscrutable (Ravenhill says “absent”) why do we so often assume the worst about that person?
  • Why does every friend group seem to unite against one or more of its members at any given time?
  • If artists are supposed to be such great feelers, why do they so often seem to lack empathy?
  • What do you make of morbid fascination? Is it great (Yay, stimulation!) or terrible (Boo, tragedy)? Is it natural or depraved to be excited by life-or-death situations?

“None of us were meant to be wealthy! None of us were meant to be recognized! If one of us goes up, another goes down!” fumes one of the chorus, blaming Blondie for indirectly causing their mutual friend Sally’s death (from breast cancer) by having collected an undue share of the world’s prosperity. Though this reasoning’s pretty far-fetched, eventually the whole group finds a way to rationalize their collective resentment.

Not that the blonde is necessarily blameless. For instance, we learn that she exploited another group friend, Ray, by selling artifacts from his AIDS death as art (presumably for some of that sweet swimmin’ pool money). During the course of the story, she tries another such trick. Even at the play’s climax, we’re unsure if she’s actually “the bigger person,” or if she just gets away more adeptly with behaving as badly as the others.

Director Samantha Van Der Merwe—fresh off another dark dive into human nature, Shaking The Tree’s One Flea Spare—was intrigued by Pool‘s vicious insinuations, and also loved the fact that the original script (as workshopped by Frantic Assembly) was formatted as one long monologue, ready to be meted into whatever parts she chose. “I think [another production] had four people,” says Van Der Merwe, “I wanted more than four…” The multi-voice narration*, the choreo, even the presence of the tall blonde woman** onstage (not technically necessary) were devised particularly for this show to stoke a mob mentality. “We’re treating the audience like a confidante,” remarked one actor, “Admitting, ‘I have this thought, but I feel like an evil sh-t for having this thought.'”

A group dynamic, by definition, accounts for some insincerity. Different individuals rarely have an identical response to circumstances, yet members of a group frequently conform their behavior to match each other. When a group presents such a united front, then, something somewhere doesn’t match up—and that’s why groups can never completely be trusted. But they’re sure good to be part of in a pinch, as Ravenhill briefly demonstrates. Sometimes, they’ll pressure each other into helping you out…even for the wrong (or no) reasons.

Pool (No Water) is a harsh world to jump into, and a hard one to crawl out of unscathed. And yet, it manages to feel wickedly fun, thanks to tight pacing, witty writing, and the storytellers’ reeling, manic momentum. And by the time the beleaguered blonde finds her footing, you may find yourself cheering for her tormentors.

Pool (No Water) continues through May 11 at the Shoebox Theatre, 2110 SE 10th Ave. Visit Theatre Vertigo’s Site for more info.


*Last seen in the Jewish Theatre Collaborative’s recent A Pigeon and a Boy, the multi-narrator device gives a strong sense of community and interdependence.

**Why’s a blond man hardly ever called simply “a blond?” Special sexism just for flaxen women?


A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury
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