Cutting Ball Theater
This review appeared in the Piedmont Post, May 20, 2015
Cutting Ball Theater’s Mount Misery uses an interesting fact—that Donald Rumsfeld owns, among his ten homes, the plantation on which Frederick Douglass spent his last years as a slave—to ask some deep questions about where the enemy lives. Resident playwright Andrew Saito superimposes one historical moment on another so that the young Frederick Douglass (played with great gravitas by Giovanni Adams) converses with Rumsfeld (a deliciously smug David Sinaiko) in the moment shortly after Abu Graib. In the play, Rumsfeld’s famously elliptical language is in full flower, but at 16, Douglass ostensibly hasn’t yet developed his remarkable rhetorical gifts. The play offers up some uncomfortable ironies, Rumsfeld uses Douglass’s language of freedom as he talks about pursuing terrorists, and Douglass’s brutal master, Edward Covey (Geoffrey Nolan) learns from the torture techniques described in Rumsfeld’s papers. The trouble is that the weight of the weighty topics doesn’t quite land, and this has everything to do with how the play’s physicality and psychic heft are transmitted. At times the young Douglass’s language is appropriately raw, but much of his speech is so soaring that it is hard to imagine that he is, in the moment of the play, not yet the great orator who will make a major contribution to our understanding of the peculiar institution. I would have liked to feel Douglass’s peril more keenly, to experience his intellectual superiority to Covey as something that could get him killed, whether at Mount Misery or elsewhere. The physical scuffles among Douglass and Covey, and later Covey and Rumsfeld, are quick and light, so again, they don’t quite convey danger. The play’s seams show a bit in other ways as well. At one point Covey’s wife (Lorri Holt) gets Douglass drunk, and then turns out in the next moment to be Covey in disguise. Covey explains that the alcohol tricked Douglass into believing Covey’s ruse, but the timing is such that Douglass has believed the disguise before he was given the drink. All that said, this is a very interesting and ambitious piece. There are many funny moments in the play, such as when Rumsfeld says to Douglass, “what you need is an internship” or when Joyce Rumsfeld (Lorri Holt) says that a person must just decide to be happy as she decorates the former plantation with peace pipes and kachina dolls. Saito also plays cleverly on our assumptions about both men. Rumsfeld is revealed to have family troubles, and Douglass is at one point tempted to sleep with Covey’s wife, so that the former is lifted up, and the latter is nudged a bit toward the edge of his pedestal. At the end, Douglass confronts his own anger and desire for retribution, asking the audience members to take a look at what might be lurking in their own hearts. With a bit of reworking, this play could step into a much more masterful place. As it is, the ending, though smart, did not feel entirely earned.