I’m a theater guy, I’m a Shakespeare guy, but I’m too busy going to shows and writing about them to read as much as I should about either of those things. That’s why a play like Born With Teeth and a program as filled with information as the Guthrie’s usually are was so fascinating to me. One thing I learned tonight, in 2016 The New Oxford Shakespeare used a computer to analyze the Henry VI history cycle written by Shakespeare and they concluded that Christopher “Kit” Marlowe contributed to the scripts. That piece of news was the catalyst for this new play by Liz Duffy Adams which is running at the Guthrie Theater this month. I found the basis for the play intriguing while watching it and now afterwards having a chance to peruse the program, I find it doubly so. What I thought was a fun experiment in “what if?” turns out to be closer to a “Maybe this?”. Of course it’s all speculation and there are detractors who dismiss the The New Oxford Shakespeare supposition, and whether true or not, the play is of course the creation of Adams own imagination. The script approaches the time period from a much dark point of view than we are used to associating with it, but it’s unquestionably a more accurate portrayal. This is a play about fear, intrigue, and survival set in the backroom of a London Tavern with the two greatest writers in English literature as it’s characters.
The play opens with a brief vignette of Marlowe and Shakespeare being tortured for information. After a few moments they say that never happened. We then proceed to three separate meetings between Marlowe and Shakespeare as they collaborate on the the three plays of Henry VI. By the end, it becomes clear the moment that opens the play is a metaphor for the characters inner lives. These are tortured men, they live in a world that is rampant with accusations of religious treason, where a writer’s words can be used against him to imply guilt. They are tortured by their rivalry and by what Lord Alfred Douglas called “the love that dare not speak its name”. At the time of the plays opening, Marlowe is the great and admired writer of the age, Shakespeare is the actor who shows promise as a writer. Much of the play deals with Shakespeare’s uncertainty of Marlowe’s motives for working with him. Marlowe is known as a spy and also for being wild and controversial, Shakespeare just wants to keep his head down, write and stay out of trouble. Shakespeare is never sure if he’s simply a pawn that Marlowe plans to sacrifice when he needs a lamb to offer up to save his own hide. While the play takes place during a dark and dangerous time period in history it’s also filled with humor, most of it coming from Marlowe’s super confidence and Shakespeare’s uncertainty of how to respond or interpret the behavior.
As you might have suspected this is a two man show. In the role of Kit Marlowe is Matthew Amendt who returns to the Guthrie where he was part of the inaugural class of the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater B.F.A. Acting Program in 2000. (There’s a fun little conversation between Amendt and the Guthrie’s Resident Casting Director Jennifer Liestman in the show’s program that I recommend reading) I’ve been a little vocal in the past of the Guthrie’s over reliance on bringing in actors from out of town and not using more local talent in productions, in this case it’s really nice to have them bring someone in who was trained here and has performed many times on the Guthrie’s stages. His performance as Marlowe is sassy, sexy, and at times emotionally raw. wisely those moments when we see into Marlowe’s heart are kept to a minimum and are fleeting. Kit is outrageous, purposely shocking and it is his very nature to keep his true feeling guarded. Those flashes of genuine feeling are felt all the more keenly due to their rarity. In contrast, Dylan Godwin’s Shakespeare is timid, at least at first, he is cautious, and uninterested in intrigue. He seems like an open book and the mouse which Kit the cat is toying with. There will be moments in the play where Shakespeare will surprise Kit and us, it’s to Godwin’s credit that those moments don’t feel false in the least. He has played the less experienced, more cautious Will, with enough awareness and intelligence that when we see more than what he shows on the surface it feels authentic. The two have a great rhythm in their banter and debate, you can sense the characters growing understanding of each other and a bonding that deepens the meaning of the events of Marlowe’s short life.
Rob Melrose who previously directed Frankenstein – Playing With Fire at the Guthrie is back to Direct Born With Teeth. Melrose is the Artistic Director of the Alley Theatre in Houston Texas where Born With Teeth had its world premiere in May of 2022. Melrose doesn’t clutter the play up with elaborate design, he trusts Adams script and his actors to draw the audience in. The minimal set design and props allow us to keep our focus on the actors and their words. Melrose allows the actors themselves to hold our interest blocking them around and upon a large wooden table. The jump up and walk upon the table creating dynamic movements that work far better than a more elaborate set would have. What set design there is from Michael Locher is enough to convey that we are in the time and place in which the play takes place. There is the use of glass or plexiglass in the background of the set that is it’s one flaw, a couple of times I caught the actors reflection in the glass taking one out of the play momentarily. The Costumes by Alejo Vietti deserve a mention, they feel very authentic and Kit’s feel like the times equivalent of a celebrity. I enjoyed the music and sound design from Sound Designer/Composer Cliff Caruthers, the music is not period but adds a nice link to the modern version of what Marlowe represents and how he behaves. The lighting throughout is well handled, I especially liked a moment at the end where Lighting Designer Carolina Ortiz Herrera drops down a row of track lights as Shakespeare addresses us directly, it emphasizes the change that has occured and points a light towards us as he tells us what we should have understood all along.
Born With Teeth runs through April 2nd and is the perfect way to get ready for Hamlet which opens next month at the Guthrie in honor of it’s 60th year, they are producing the play that opened the theater in 1963. For more information and to purchase tickets for either of those plays go to https://www.guthrietheater.org/shows-and-tickets/2023-2024-season/
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