Cutting Ball's ‘Mount Misery’ a timely, funny take on politics

Former U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld gets hoisted on his own petard in this clever and provocative new play by Cutting Ball Theater playwright-in-residence Andrew Saito.

But Saito is too imaginative to settle for a simple parody.

In 2003, the real Rumsfeld bought a house in Maryland called, all too fittingly, Mt. Misery. It was once owned by one Edward Covey, a slave master. There, for a while, teenage slave Frederick Douglass (later turned free man, orator and advisor to President Lincoln) was beaten mercilessly.

In “Mount Misery: A Comedy of Enhanced Interrogations,” a self-confident and self-justifying, 72-year-old Rumsfeld (irresistibly affable as played by always excellent Cutting Ball regular David Sinaiko) is contemplating running for president, much to the dismay of his preternaturally cheery wife, Joyce (the equally excellent Lorri Holt), who is turning a room of the house into a “shrine of peace.”

A loving couple, they’re troubled by the absence of their estranged son.

But while it’s 2004 for the Rumsfelds, it’s simultaneously 1834 for young, super-smart, literate Douglass (Giovanni Adams, charming and impassioned, but sometimes missing nuances in his rushed delivery) and for his owner, the cruel and religiously devout Covey (Geoffrey Nolan).

When Rumsfeld finds barefoot, startled Douglass in Mt. Misery, he assumes he’s the new gardener and is instantly avuncular. Seeing the whip scars on the slave’s back, he urges the kid to fight his enemy, teaching him wrestling moves.

For his part, Douglass – who has a particularly poetic turn of phrase as he talks alternately to Rumsfeld, Joyce, Covey and the audience – is so eager to absorb knowledge that despite being baffled by the modern world to which he’s been mysteriously transported, he grasps big and important concepts.

Indeed, when Rumsfeld more than casually leaves out, for Douglass to see, those never-to-be-forgotten photos of Abu Ghraib prisoners — photos that Rumsfeld’s wife can’t stand to look at even as she calls her husband “the chief defender of freedom across the globe” – the slave can perceive connections to his own miserable situation. Those horrific photos play a crucial part in the plot. So too does a game of Scrabble, and a few other well-chosen props.

And in Saito’s probing vision, every character has multiple personality layers, carefully developed by the actors and director Rob Melrose.

In juxtaposing American “enhanced interrogation” tactics (see subtitle) like waterboarding with the violence perpetrated against African-American slaves, the playwright makes our checkered history feel all too immediate.

REVIEW

Mount Misery

Presented by Cutting Ball Theater

Where: Exit on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., S.F.

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridaysm 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays; closes June 7

Tickets: $10 to $50

Contact: (415) 525-1205, www.cuttingball.com

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