Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's recent review of The Song Poet
Liz Duffy Adams' thrilling play, Born with Teeth, imagines a series of encounters during the years 1691-1693 between the great Christopher Marlowe (Kit to his friends) and soon-to-be far greater William Shakespeare. At the onset, Marlow is established as the leading light among English playwrights and poets, with plays like Dido, Queen of Carthage, Tamburlaine (Parts I and II), and Doctor Faustus having already been acclaimed. William Shakespeare is just taking off, having left his home in pastoral Stratford where he had staged a few lesser plays for London, where his output and reputation would be burnished. In Adams' reverie, the up-and-comer Will had reached out to Kit to collaborate with him on a history play he had in mind. To Will's amazement, Kit agrees.
But why, Will wonders? Arrogant Kit Marlowe does not for an instant think he needs help to write any play on which he set his mind. If there was any doubt, when Will, upon their first meeting, tells the fabled Marlowe "what an honor it is to work with you," Marlow's reply–a syrupy "I should say so!"–dispels it. Nor was Kit of a generous bent, finding joy in helping prospective competitors get a leg up. No, Kit had something else in mind. Did it involve his rumored activities as a spy for one side or the other of the factions circling to take control once heirless Queen Elizabeth I was gone? Or perhaps Kit's well-known proclivity to become intimately acquainted with good-looking young men? On that point, when Will points out that he and Kit are actually exactly the same age, Kit's repeatedly referring to Will as "boy" reveals his intent to establish his authority in all matters.
Duffy has invented conversations that veer back and forth, ranging from religious persecution (Shakespeare was suspected of being a secret Catholic, quite forbidden), the nature of divinity and atheism, the jockeying among Essex, Cecil and Raleigh for influence with the Queen, sexual preference and how open one dare be in that regard, the ravages of plague in the land, the relative merits of country and city life, and the playwrights' different approaches to the writing process. It is all fascinating, exchanged with rapier speed and wit on stage at the Guthrie Theater's McGuire Proscenium Stage. In a couple of sequences Kit and Will take on the characters Margaret and Suffolk from the play they are working on (Henry VI), reading with a depth of emotion that reveals something about themselves as well. The dialogue glitters with an intoxicating blend of historical references, catty one-one-upmanship, and insights into the workings of the two men's minds.
There continues to be a great degree of uncertainty about the real Marlowe's activities during his lifetime. It has been ascertained with some certainty that he did serve as a spy. The belief that he was homosexual is based largely on circumstantial evidence and somewhat clear allusions in his writings. The matter of how he died and who was his assassin also remains clouded. What is certain is that he was killed in 1693, the year in which Duffy sets the play's final scene. Marlow was only 30 years old. Of course, Shakespeare went on to have the far greater legacy, but imagine if Marlow had lived.
Duffy masterfully spins all of this together in three scenes, spread over ninety minutes. The play premiered last year at Houston's esteemed Alley Theatre and that production has been brought in its entirety to the Guthrie–same director, Rob Melrose (the Alley's artistic director), same design team, and same wondrously cast actors: Matthew Amendt as Kit and Dylan Goodwin as Will. At the Alley the play was performed on a thrust stage, putting the verbal (and at times physical) sparring virtually in the audience's lap, yet always biased by one's vantage point. On the wide McGuire stage, the audience is able to see the full sweep of engagement between Marlowe and Shakespeare, with Melrose's staging creating panoramic stage pictures. These are wonderfully conceived, particularly in the posturing around, behind or atop the table to, variously, intimidate, inspire or seduce.
Amendt and Goodwin know their characters well, this being their second run in two years, and they play off one another with mastery. Whether it is a function of Melrose's staging, the actors' skill, or a trick of the lighting (or all three) in the first scene I had a sense that Amendt (Kit) was the taller of the two, while in the second scene they seemed of equal height, and by the third I wasn't sure if Goodwin (Will) wasn't a shade taller. That certainly is in keeping with their relative stature over the course of the play, but the physical impression of it is quite uncanny.
Alejo Vietti's costumes draw a clear distinction between the temperament of the two protagonists. Marlowe is attired in black, with a jacket cinched to emphasize his physique, adorned front and back with gold studs. The same gold studs circle the cuffs of his black boots, while his dark hair hangs luxuriously long. Shakespeare's hair is short, and he sports a neatly trimmed goatee. His jacket looks to be quality work, brown leather pieces stitched together (well, his father was a glove-maker) making a handsome, but not imperious impression.
Scenic designer Michael Locher created a formidable tavern table on which the two men face off, with a gabled wall behind to represent the tavern, and behind that a cobblestone and beam frieze of English renaissance streetscape, while visible footlights at the rim of the stage create the feel of an Elizabethan stage. Cliff Caruthers composed music and designed the sound, which sometimes suggest disorder outside the tavern walls causing both Kit and Will to take fright. Carolina Ortiz Herrera's lighting design enhances the production throughout. Fight director Aaron Preusse, the only local member of the creative team, ably guides a couple of violent encounters.
There is so much stuffed into Born with Teeth that it is difficult to cite the one thing it is about. It is a profile of two of the foundational artists of the English-speaking theater. It is a window into the court intrigue of Elizabethan England and its effects on those on the sidelines. It is a brilliantly scripted duel between two different approaches to living life as an artist. It is also a romance, played with considerable heat. It ultimately is an argument raising serious ethical questions, as one of the characters states about his course of action, "If only one of us can be a great poet, it's not a difficult choice." Born with Teeth is very funny, intriguing and exhilarating. It would burst out of any box we try to put it into, and that is what makes it so very wonderful.
Born with Teeth runs through April 2, 2023, at the Guthrie Theater's McGuire Proscenium Stage, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $31 to $79. Seniors (65+), College Students (with ID) $3 - $6 off per ticket. Public Rush line for unsold seats 1530 minutes before performance, up to four tickets: $20 on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday evenings; $25 on weekend matinees, Friday and Saturday evenings. For tickets and information, please call 612-377-2224 or visit GuthrieTheater.org.
Playwright: Liz Duffy Adams; Director: Rob Melrose; Scenic Design: Michael Locher; Costume Design: Alejo Vietti; Lighting Design: Carolina Ortiz Herrera; Sound Design/Composer: Cliff Caruthers; Fight Director: Aaron Preusse; NYC Casting Consultant: McCorkle Casting, Ltd.; Stage Manager: Jocelyn A. Thompson; Assistant Stage Manager: Lyndsey R. Harter; Assistant Director: Anna J. Crace.
Cast: Matthew Amendt (Kit), Dylan Goodwin (Will).