Timeline Theatre Company kicks off its 21st season with the Chicago premiere of The Audience by Peter Morgan, one of the foremost experts on the British monarchy and the writer responsible for such acclaimed works as Frost/Nixon and The Queen. As Morgan’s background suggests, the play is incredibly well-researched and detailed, and history buffs in the audience will undoubtedly be enamored with Morgan’s quick-witted, fictitious account of the oft-discussed monarch Queen Elizabeth II. Yet, for all its merit, this play is riddled with intrigue exclusively through the dialogue and the text’s subtleties, and, as such, it’s certainly not a piece that will be universally loved or appreciated; it’s not one that directly relates to/speaks to everyone, and the pacing of the show remains stagnant throughout.
One should have at least a basic understanding of the depicted events, as this knowledge proves essential to follow Morgan's work as it spans across multiple decades in non-linear fashion. Set in the Private Audience Room in Buckingham Palace, The Audience offers a glimpse into Queen Elizabeth’s conversations with eight different Prime Ministers, interspersed with flashbacks to her time as a young girl grappling with her future role and responsibilities. The play is one that offers a poignant albeit slow paced reflection of her journey from her somewhat naive, shy nature post-coronation to the impactful position she takes on in later years.
Even with a somewhat plodding script, TimeLine’s production succeeds because of the powerful performer at its center: Janet Ulrich Brooks (Queen Elizabeth II). Giving one of the best Chicago performances of 2017, Brooks somehow manages to physically and emotionally alter her portrayal for each time period expertly. When it might have been difficult to tell which stage of the Queen’s life we were in, Brooks’ physicality alone made it clear. And, playing the role of an individual known for her stoic nature, she manages to offer a glimpse of humanity without sacrificing any of the well-known monarch’s integrity. The most powerful moment perhaps comes at the end of the first act, as we finally see the Queen’s coronation and feel the intense meaning and significance vibrating through these mostly silent moments.
The supporting holds their own against Brooks, quite a feat in itself, as three of the five take on the challenging task of playing multiple roles. Carmen Roman (Margaret Thatcher, Bobo MacDonald, Secretary, Security Officer) struggles a bit with her portrayal of the infamous Iron Lady, but she, Matt DeCaro (as Winston Churchill, Harold Wilson, Tony Blair, Archbishop) and Mark Ulrich (John Major, Gordon Brown, Anthony Eden, David Cameron, Detective) otherwise manage to make wonderfully clear and strong acting choices to differentiate between their many roles. It must be noted as well that the wig game in this show was spot on--this is oftentimes one of the most challenging technical elements, and wig designer Katie Cordts knocks it one out of the park (assuming it’s acceptable to use a sports analogy to describe wig design).
All in all Janet Ulrich Brooks offers up a performance worthy of a packed audience. Though this production will not be for everyone, those willing to lend a keen ear to this talented ensemble will not leave disappointed.
Review by Emily Schmidt
The Audience continues through November 12 at TimeLine Theatre. More information here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.