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BWW Review: HANDBAGGED at Round House Theatre Offers a Masterclass in Acting

BWW Review:  HANDBAGGED at Round House Theatre Offers a Masterclass in Acting
Beth Hylton (Liz), Jennifer Mendenhall (Q), Kate Fahy (T), and Susan Lynskey (Mags) in Round House Theatre's current production of HANDBAGGED. Photo by Kaley Etzkorn

The central idea of Moira Buffini's Olivier Award-winning, fourth wall-breaking, and timely play HANDBAGGED, now making its American premiere at Round House Theatre, is one that's bound to grab the attention of many a Washingtonian steeped in political thought and action. An older Queen Elizabeth II (Q, played by Jennifer Mendenhall) and an older Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (T, played by Kate Fahy) reflect on the time in which they both held power in Great Britain. Their encounters weren't of the warm and fuzzy variety certainly, but as females in positions of power they must have had some common bond, right? We see their younger selves (Beth Hylton plays "Liz" and Susan Lynskey plays "Mags") have tea and discuss the political, social, and economic issues of the day. With nary a raised voice, they make their strong viewpoints known. Both are steely and determined in their own way and they're rarely, if ever, on the same page - politically or otherwise.

While Act One of Ms. Buffini's play tends to wander into tedious Wikipedia or history textbook land, Director Indhu Rubasingham's exceptionally strong cast proves capable of keeping the audience engaged throughout. Lynskey, especially, is most adept at portraying "The Iron Lady," Maggie Thatcher and delivers one of the best performances I've seen this season. Fahy demonstrates that Thatcher didn't change much with age. Beth Hylton and Jennifer Mendenhall's portrayals of the younger and older versions of the queen have a common basis, but allow us to see how the queen grew into the person we know today. The queen is regal and refined, yet approachable and both excel with some surprising comedic moments. All four deliver a masterclass in acting, with perfectly believable accents (Melissa Flaim is the dialect coach), as they spar and debate with one another. Cody Leroy Wilson and John Lescault, playing various men that had the pleasure or displeasure of working with the women, round out the formidable cast.

Thanks to these sublime performances, it's much easier to turn a mostly blind eye to Buffini's attempt to educate her audience on the events on the day in a less than theatrical way. One might look to a play like Oslo as a good example to follow on how to provide your audience political context without insulting their intelligence and awareness of history - whether they are American, English, or any other nationality.

Although the production has strong technical elements, it's really all about the acting. Richard Kent's minimalist scenic design ensures focus on the ladies and his costumes capture their style and personality perfectly. Jesse Belsky's lighting and Carolyn Downing's sound design also enhance the production.

While it's easy to understand why Ryan Rilette chose this work as Round House's entry into the Women's Voices Theater Festival, the script is unfortunately not as strong as Ironbound. The latter was a highlight of the previous festival. Nonetheless, the acting work in this play is so strong that I would still recommend it.

Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.

HANDBAGGED plays at Round House Theatre - 4545 East-West Highway - through March 3, 2018. For tickets, call the box office at 240-644-1100 or purchase them online.

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