Friday, March 17, 2023

"Born with Teeth" at the Guthrie Theater

As the perfect companion to the Guthrie Theater's upcoming 60th Anniversary production of Hamlet, they're presenting the Alley Theatre production of the new play Born with Teeth. Based on a recent scholarly finding that Shakespeare might have collaborated with another great playwright of the time, Kit Marlowe, on the Henry VI plays, playwright Liz Duffy Adams imagines those meetings between the two men and what might have transpired. But this is no dull history lesson. It's an enthralling, dynamic, quick-witted, modern, fascinating two-hander that feels like the best tennis match I've ever seen (note: I've never seen a tennis match). The design is beautiful, but all this play needs is this brilliant script and these two gifted actors who make us feel like we're in the room with two of England's greatest playwrights as they match wits with each other, and who comes out on top may surprise you. I don't often read plays, but I just ordered this script from the Guthrie Store, because this 90-minute play is overflowing with clever, hilarious, mind-boggling lines and plot points that I want to read, study, and devour (to borrow one of those lines). If you're fan of Shakespeare, or smartly written two-handers, or historical fiction, or really great acting, Born with Teeth is a must-see (continuing through April 2 on the Guthrie's proscenium stage).

I've barely even heard of Marlowe, much less seen any of his plays, but in the 1590s when this play takes place, he was the preeminent poet playwright in London and Shakespeare was the upstart. Not too surprising that most casual theater-goers haven't heard of him while Shakespeare is mandatory reading in most high schools, considering Marlowe died mysteriously before the age of 30, whilst Shakespeare had another two decades in which he continued writing. The play begins with their first meeting to begin working on the play, and it's obvious that Marlowe has the upper hand. He teases and insults Shakespeare incessantly, but in a flirty kind of way. They develop a sort of antagonistic affection for each other, which is complicated by the fact that Marlowe is a spy, reporting Catholics and other potential threats to the Protestant Queen Elizabeth to the authorities, which results in torture and/or death. Shakespeare's family are rumored to be secret Catholics, which puts him in danger. The two men meet several times over the course of a few years, working out scenes in the play together, and discussing any number of other subjects. 

Matthew Amendt and Dylan Godwin (photo by Dan Norman)
This play features masterful performances by its two actors, reprising their roles from the 2022 production at Alley Theatre in Houston. A familiar name and face from the first decade of this century, Matthew Amendt returns to the Guthrie stage after a ten-year absence. A graduate of the U of M/Guthrie BFA program's inaugural class, he has developed into a powerful actor. As the haughty Marlowe, he deliciously spits out insults with a uniquely entertaining delivery, and then plumbs the depths of emotion as Marlowe grapples with his demons. It's a raw yet polished, strong yet vulnerable, wholly beautiful performance. Dylan Godwin, an Alley Theatre company member, is his equal as Shakespeare. In this complicated portrait of the bard, he's initially meek and eager to please, with greater depths slowly revealed over the course of the play. The playwright employs interstitials in which Shakespeare speaks directly to the audience, providing commentary and context, and this feels like where we get to see the real person. Maybe because this is their second time playing these roles, the two actors have an electric chemistry between them as they fully embody these roles.

Alley Theatre Artistic Director Rob Melrose (who's last directing role at the Guthrie was Frankenstein - Playing with Fire in 2018) directs the piece and brings out all of the genius of the script, the pace moving quickly, with a darkly humorous tone that also allows for moments of real emotion. This play could easily be staged on a bare stage with minimal sets/costumes/lighting/sound design (and I hope it is - I would love to see smaller theaters take this one on too), but of course, the design here is gorgeous and adds to the experience. A long wooden table with multiple stools dominates the stage, with an Elizabethan building peeking out behind a black wall with cutouts. The actors are dressed in modern Elizabethan chic costumes, the more established Marlowe's studded with gold. Lighting reflects subtle changes in mood, or not so subtle - with a bright neon light at the front edge of the stage signaling the switch into Shakespeare's commentary. The sound design and original compositions also contribute to the atmosphere. (Scenic design by Michael Locher, costume design by Alejo Vietti, lighting design by Carolina Ortiz Herrera, and sound design/composition by Cliff Caruthers.)

It's hard to be the bard. Especially in a country torn by religions turmoil and political machinations by the people in power, when all you want to do is write. This play explores what that might have been like for these two great historical writers, and it's endlessly fun to speculate on their lives in this way. Two-handers are my favorite kind of play, just two people sitting in a room talking. And this is a great one, although it's more like two people prowling around a room in a game of wits, love, and one-upmanship. It's exceedingly entertaining to watch. A brilliant new script, two incredible performances, and thoughtful and beautiful design - it really doesn't get much better than this.

See Born with Teeth at the Guthrie now through April 2.