By JEAN LOWERISON | Downtown News
Some people think the Queen of England has an easy job, riding around in a carriage, giving that famous imperial wave, and taping a nice Christmas message every year.
But Moira Buffini’s “Handbagged” gives a different picture while drawing a portrait of the current queen’s somewhat rocky relationship with Margaret Thatcher during the tumultuous 11 years of Thatcher’s tenancy as Prime Minister.
Kim Strassburger directs the strange and wondrous “Handbagged,” which plays through Nov. 17 at Moxie Theatre.
Since what goes on between those two leaders has historically been kept private, we’ll probably never really know the queen’s opinion about the Iron Lady, either now or during Thatcher’s 1979-1990 reign as PM.
But Buffini offers a riveting and mostly amusing glimpse at what they might have thought of each other at the time. She does it in a most unusual way: with two actors playing each woman. In the script, the younger queen is called Liz (and played here by Debra Wanger), while the older queen is called Q (played by Sandy Campbell).
Likewise, Thatcher the younger, called Mags, is played by Lisel Gorell-Getz, while the older Iron Lady is called simply T and played by Linda Libby. The dual characters often speak to each other, to the other duet and to us directly – and they frequently contradict each other. It’s a fascinating theatrical gambit that requires a bit of attention, but is well worth it.
There are also two men in the play, who offer some 17 instant characterizations of servants, ministers, husbands or whatever the script calls for. They are magnificently played by Max Macke and Durwood Murray. Though in the play primarily to provide illustrative or historical notes for those who weren’t around at the time, they get their chance too, most especially when portraying U.S. President Ronald and Nancy Reagan.
Rupert Murdoch, the right-wing millionaire who in 1981 bought London’s major paper The Times, also shows up in amusing ways.
The title refers not to the use of a handbag as a weapon, but to the use of a “verbal attack to crush a person ruthlessly and forcefully.” Both of these women are capable of first-class handbagging.
Buffini sees the main problem between Thatcher and Elizabeth as a philosophical difference about the purpose of government. Thatcher is more interested in individual rights than social cohesion. She wants as little regulation of business as possible and is horrified when Liz suggests that “we in the Commonwealth are fortunate enough to belong to a worldwide comradeship.”
Their styles differ too. The queen is subtle and reserved in her word choices, whereas Thatcher’s unflinching, bull-in-a-china-shop approach earned her the nickname “Maggietollah” from British Member of Parliament Neil Kinnock.
“Handbagged” started as a one-act in 2010. It was revised and toured in 2013. It seems that a few comments have been inserted that, shall we say, have relevance to U.S. policy today.
Director Kim Strassburger is blessed with a powerhouse cast that seems to take delight in presenting this delightfully peculiar piece. If I had to pick a favorite, it would have to be Murray, whose array of characters is absurdly, wonderfully varied and he is terrific at each one. But they are all brilliant.
The design team is excellent as well, especially in the costume and wig departments (credit Danita Lee and Missy Bradstreet, respectively).
Julie Lorenz’s set design is simple and unobtrusive, with a big jagged Union Jack at the rear and very little furniture. Lighting and sound are well handled by Cynthia Bloodgood and Mason Pilevsky. And credit Vanessa Dinning with the coaching of all those accents.
Get your tickets now. “Handbagged” is one of the best plays of the year.
— Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.