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The Crown. The Audience. The Queen.
The early 21st century has left us with no shortage of entertainment featuring Her Majesty, which raises the question: Did Round House Theatre really need to import a play where yet another talented actress plays Queen Elizabeth II?
Most certainly not!
The genius of Handbagged, now receiving its American premiere at Round House, as part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, is that two pairs of actors each portray Queen Elizabeth and her foil, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Most often, it’s the superb younger actors (Beth Hylton as “Liz” and Susan Lynskey as “Mags”) who interact onstage, while their older counterparts provide commentary. For example, when the elder Thatcher, played a bit woodenly by Kate Fahy, goes on a rant about curtailing Irish immigration and proposes not allowing those immigrants to vote in the U.K. Lynskey cuts her off.
“I did not say that,” she protests.
“But crikey, I thought it!” the older Thatcher retorts.
Playwright Moira Buffini wisely understands that plays in which historical characters sit around discussing public policy can be boring. (Including a few other entrants in the Women’s Voices Festival. Ahem.) To wit about not sitting around, Handbagged begins with a monologue for the more senior Maggie.
“Freedom. Freedom and democracy,” Fahy intones. “They are things worth dying for. We must never stop resisting those who would take them from us.” She continues on in her sincere but holier-than-thou tone, eventually conceding that she would like to sit down. She won’t request a chair, however, because presumably one of the men, “dancing around me in their suits, ties flapping in the wind” will bring one out. “I can pin them,” she says with pride. “[They wriggle] in my gaze.”
And then, to her surprise, she is interrupted not by an acquiescent male but by an imperious Jennifer Mendenhall, who paces onstage to play the older queen.
“You look as if you need a chair?” she astutely observes.
Suddenly, the Iron Lady wants to keep standing, come hell or high tea.
It’s a matter of public record that Thatcher and the Queen occasionally came to loggerheads. Onstage the only matters these ladies agree on are carrying black hangbags and wearing pearls, and even then there’s the matter of one strand or two. (All the costumes and wigs are terrific.) The scripted spats are mostly imagined, with Buffini smartly speculating about how Liz and Mags might have hashed out their opposing positions on say, sanctioning apartheid South Africa or defending the Falkland Islands.
Again, the staging, concept, and performances make this much less dull than it sounds. Aiding the stiff-upper-lipped women are Cody LeRoy Wilson and John Lescault, who play a variety of men with ties flapping in the wind. They also serve as expository narrators, pausing to tell the audience precisely who they are playing. Lescault’s fay Denis Thatcher is a particular delight, but the list also includes a footman, a Scottish press secretary, a Welsh parliamentarian, and Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch, as well as President Reagan and Nancy Reagan. Wilson looks bloody good in a red dress.
When, in rehearsal, English director Indhu Rubasingham stumbled across a term or character she thought might confuse American audiences, she had Buffini’s permission to tweak the dialogue, resulting mostly in extra lines for Wilson and Lescault.
Those quotes from the opening monologue about “resisting” and preserving democracy? They drew opening-night cheers from audience members who likely assumed they’d been dropped in to take shots at President Donald Trump. But no, those are original. Handbagged premiered in 2014, when the Reagans were still the only showbiz stars to inhabit the White House. Artistic director Ryan Rillette booked the rights two years later, assuming that the play would serve as an interesting rumination on women in power, both at 10 Downing Street and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
Instead, all four well-coifed ladies now function as cautionary reminders that putting a woman in charge doesn’t guarantee she’ll make choices that put her on the right side of history. Like a tarnished tiara, that’s the sobering, unsatisfying truth to be found in this otherwise sparkling piece of historical fiction.
At Round House Theatre to March 3. 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. $55–$75. (240) 644-1100. roundhousetheatre.org.