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Enthralling ‘Audience’ puts Britain’s queen in room with politicians

Matt DeCaro plays Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Janet Ulrich Brooks is Queen Elizabeth II in the TimeLine Theatre production of "The Audience." | Lara Goetsch

She is so much more than the pastel-hued suits and hats, boxy little handbags, and cautious smiles that have generated certainty, continuity (and satire) for close to seven decades. And by now she has outlasted 12 prime ministers of Great Britain, all of whom came to Buckingham Palace for the weekly chats during which they hoped to gain her (mostly understated) approval for their policies. In the process, these politicians also revealed their widely varying temperaments which she handled with the most practiced diplomacy, and a few rare bursts of rage.

Highly recommended
When: Through Nov. 12
Where: TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington
Tickets: $40 – $54
Info: www.timelinetheatre.com
Run time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission

The woman in question? Queen Elizabeth II, who ascended to the throne in 1952 (at the tender age of 25), and, as of 2015, surpassed the reign of her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria to become the longest-reigning British monarch and female head of state in world history.

Now, you can now have an audience of your own with the Queen by way of TimeLine Theatre’s superb Chicago premiere of “The Audience,” Peter Morgan’s whip-smart portrait of a woman whose character, intelligence, biting humor and quiet ferocity emerges in the most surprising ways.

Morgan’s play is already widely known thanks to Helen Mirren’s portrayal in London and on Broadway (with a wider audience catching it in movie theaters as part of Britain’s National Theatre Live series). But in Chicago, where actress Janet Ulrich Brooks is giving the performance of a lifetime, Elizabeth has found another extraordinary interpreter. Brooks brings to life the woman who quite quickly learned to play her role when, early on, she had to confront the aging Sir Winston Churchill, beloved for leading Britain through World War II, but now out of favor and determined to hang on. And with great subtlety she also suggests Elizabeth’s growing confidence and increasingly shrewd understanding of politics.

Janet Ulrich Brooks (left) plays Queen Elizabeth II and Carmen Roman plays Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the TimeLine Theatre production of “The Audience.” | Lara Goetsch

With one notable exception, all the visiting leaders were men, and Elizabeth, who married before she became queen, understood (in a decidedly pre-feminist era) how carefully this official “imbalance” of power needed to be handled. She also knew that while politicians come and go (and are wracked by insecurity and all its attendant maladies), she held her position for life. At the same time, she was remarkably “normal,” preferring the simple country life at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, and crediting her nanny, BoBo MacDonald, with giving her a sense of the real world.

Elizabeth survived her encounter with Churchill (one of several crucial roles played brilliantly by Matt DeCaro). And she certainly didn’t hold back when she felt betrayed by Anthony Eden (Mark Ulrich, ideally arrogant)  who took the country to war during the Suez Canal crisis of 1956. But while she was initially rattled by Harold Wilson, the exuberant Labor party leader whose working-class upbringing was the polar opposite of her own, she quickly warmed to his down-to-earth spirit. And again, DeCaro could not be more winning, easily suggesting why Wilson was Elizabeth’s clear “favorite.”

To be sure, the queen was no fan of Tony Blair (DeCaro) or Gordon Brown ( Ulrich), but she developed a sort of maternal pity for poor John Major (Ulrich is spot-on here), the nervous depressive more suited to academia. It was for Margaret Thatcher (in a ferocious turn by Carmen Roman, dressed in a blazing red suit), that she saved her greatest fury, and the two women go at each other with everything they’ve got. Not lost is the irony of the working-class Thatcher (turned ruthless financial conservative), battling the royally-privileged Elizabeth who had a feel for the common people.

The ever razor-sharp director Nick Bowling has staged “The Audience” in-the-round, with Jeffrey Kmiec’s all white set defining the space, and Theresa Ham’s picture-perfect costumes defining the characters. David Lively is splendid as Equerry (the officer of honor who tends to daily matters), and there are several haunting scenes between Elizabeth as a girl (Audrey Edwards, who rotates with Sophie Ackerman), and the mature queen, that suggest how early on she learned to differentiate public and private life. (Vocal projection could use some tweaking here.)

Last year, after seeing Mike Bartlett’s “Charles III” at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, I wondered if the prince had ever arranged a private viewing of it on video. Watching “The Audience” I wondered if Elizabeth has seen Morgan’s play, and what she might have said (or more crucially not said), in response to it.

Mark Ulrich plays Prime Minister Anthony Eden and Janet Ulrich Brooks plays Queen Elizabeth II in the TimeLine Theatre production of “The Audience.” | Lara Goetsch