West Coast Premiere of Handbagged is Hilarious, If Esoteric, Fun

Abigail Padgett Reviews - Theater

The Queen of England meets monthly with the prime minister, and the content of those conversations is zealously protected.  During Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as PM (1979-1990) rumors flew regarding an animosity between the two women during these afternoon teas, but no one has ever confirmed the whispered tales.  Until now.  (Well, now fictionally, but American audiences are in 2019 only too attuned to the political expedience of fiction.)

San Diego Moxie Theater’s Handbagged under the direction of Kim Strassburger takes this somewhat-revised-for-the-U.S. British play by Moira Buffini to enjoyably complicated heights.  The queen and Thatcher appear onstage, at the same time, as they were when Thatcher came to power and eleven years later when she was forced to resign, addressing both each other and themselves in their age-defined iterations.  The phrase, “I never said that,” is pronounced frequently, bringing laughs while highlighting the fallibility of memory.  All other roles – Denis Thatcher, Michael Shea, Neil Kinnock, Prince Phillip, both Ronald and Nancy Reagan  plus liveried royal servants – are played by two male actors.

Sandy Campbell’s mature Queen Elizabeth II literally rules with a wry, indomitable presence that manages to capture the mythos surrounding the actual person, although one wonders if the actual queen is really that kindly and progressive.  “Liz,” Debra Wanger’s younger Queen Elizabeth, appears younger than the fifty-three Elizabeth was when Thatcher became PM despite Danita Lee’s exquisite costuming, and sometimes seems consciously shy with her older self, although never with Thatcher at either age.

Max Macke and Durwood Murray in quick-change ensemble roles provide both the history lessons desperately needed by many in American  audiences (Come on, do you really remember who Neil Kinnock is/was?) and comic relief.  Murray’s beefy African American Nancy Reagan gets slapstick chortles, but his fourth wall-shattering “I’ll have a go at the accent,” in perfect Scottish brogue is both funny and masterful, as is Macke’s lengthy Ronald Reagan.  Kudos to Dialect coach Vanessa Dinning as well.

Playwright Buffini breaks the fourth wall over and over, sometimes successfully as with Murray’s accent, and sometimes resulting in confusion.  A bit in the first act involves both Thatchers reacting to Denis Thatcher (Macke) switching character.  The women stay in character while the man is revealed to be an actor, acting.  The relation of such in-your-face theatricality to the themes of the play may be missed by many, including this reviewer.

Mature Margaret Thatcher (Linda Libby) and her younger version, “Mags” (Lisel Gorell-Getz) really seem to be the same person – loud, opinionated, intelligent and blindly committed to a right-wing agenda that in their voices is less onerous than the contemporary American version, mainly because Thatcher is articulate.  Nonetheless, as the two women and their differently-aged doppelgangers meet and disagree about striking miners, Northern Ireland, the Falklands and picnics at Balmoral Castle,  Thatcher’s fate as an uncompromising zealot looms.

If the queen emerges victorious in Handbagged (and she does), Thatcher nonetheless reigns on another level.  She’s Aristotle’s tragic figure, brought down by a single flaw in character – her inability, or refusal, to factor in any perspective but her own.  Hubris.  How refreshing to see it in a woman!

Runs from October 19-November 17. Thurs at 7:30, Fri and Sat at 8, Sun at 2. Moxie Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Blvd. San Diego. $15-48.