Born With Teeth (Alley Theatre) @ The Guthrie Theater, McGuire Proscenium Stage

It’s quite a leap for a bit of fairly rarified attribution studies to lead to a lavish staging of a piece of slash fanfic. But for Liz Duffy Adams, the arguments of the New Oxford Shakespeare that Marlowe and Shakespeare collaborated on the Henry VI plays were enough to prompt a new ninety-minute play, first staged at Texas’s Alley Theatre and then revived at the Guthrie in Minneapolis (just in time for Shakespeare Association of America attendees to catch the closing performances). Adams’s play enters a long tradition of Shakespearean biofiction, putting Will Shakespeare and Kit Marlowe in the back room of a bar together, where they write plays and negotiate their feelings for one another in the context of a totalitarian surveillance state. But while the premise had a great deal of promise, Rob Melrose’s production failed to compensate for the deficiencies of a script that couldn’t decide what kind of play it wanted to be.

In a choice reminiscent of The Sandman, Adams’s play takes place in the same pub across three scenes spanning 1591 to 1593. Lord Strange has hired Shakespeare to work with Marlowe to put on a new pot-boiler telling the start of the Wars of the Roses. Will is initially star-struck by the charismatic Kit, but by the time they meet the following year to write Part 2, Shakespeare’s star is on the ascendancy and he’s taking more of a lead in the collaboration. By the short third scene, a final meeting just before Marlowe’s death, 3 Henry VI has been staged with almost nothing of Marlowe in it, and Shakespeare is preparing for stardom. The two men fall – sort of – in love with one another, but they are also being torn apart by the machinations of the warring political forces of Walter Raleigh, Robert Cecil, and the Earl of Essex, with playwrights forced to inform one one another in order to survive.

Michael Locher’s set – with a lavish scenic representation of a London street, and a large wooden table surrounded with chairs – tried to fill the large stage of the McGuire, but felt cavernous around Matthew Amendt’s Kit and Dylan Godwin’s Will, and this was part of the difficulty of a production that was trying in some ways to be paranoid conspiracy thriller – with Kit initially as the one making veiled threats (or warnings) to Will, but later finding himself wrong-footed as the naive Will started learning how to play the game – and in other ways to be an intimate relationship story. With the politics happening entirely off-stage, the emphasis of the actual drama was on the latter; but the reliance of the plot on the former led to interminable exposition. That is, this was a production in which two people spent a lot of time talking about much more interesting things happening elsewhere, and in which the larger surveillance culture of Elizabethan London never became a consistently tangible threat.

Instead, the play and production hinged on the ability of Amendt and Godwin to develop a complex, multi-faceted relationship between two men (Salieri and Mozart were a reference point in the program). As a queer love story, there was a lot here to enjoy, at least in theory. The relationship began as one-sided, with a brash, over-confident Kit dismissing the ‘boy’ Will (‘We’re the same age’, was the response. ‘Not in stage years’), but Kit gradually found himself won over by Will’s empathy for his characters even while interrogating Will about his Catholic connections. As the two fell in love – Kit realizing Will’s bisexuality – they started feeling one another out about future possibilities. Could Will abandon his wife? Could Kit leave the service of the spymasters? Could Will save himself by turning informant? The questions were powerful and rich, fulfilling a kind of fanfic wish-fulfilment (especially when they finally got to share a snog), but also building in plausible obstacles to root the emotional drama in yearning.

The problem with this was that the performances and script were just too broad. The production began with a fantasy sequence of Will and Kit hanging from chains, screaming while being tortured, before snapping to Will archly saying ‘Yeah, that never happened’. Will’s text and Godwin’s performance in the subsequent framing dialogue around the scenes that followed strongly echoed Johnny Depp’s performance of John Wilmot in The Libertine, a camp, self-justifying mutter as he wrestled with his own past. In the scenes, however, Godwin was more the wide-eyed ingenue, earnest and gauche, while Amendt’s Marlowe preened, leaning at obtuse angles against the table and reclining dandily against furniture, all while denouncing like Edward Alleyn. Particularly with so many built-in in-jokes (much of the script echoed the kinds of knowing reference typical of Upstart Crow), the play pushed towards parodic comedy to an extent that undermined the more serious brewing conflict. And by the time Shakespeare revealed in the final scene that he had betrayed Marlowe to Raleigh, the biofiction the play resembled most was none other than Anonymous; the final line (something like ‘You shouldn’t be surprised that the man who wrote Iago knew what it was to betray his friend’) was so inadvertently hilarious in its melodrama that it seemed a shame the production hadn’t been campier. But, torn in so many different tonal directions, the play never seemed to fully decide what kind of investment it had in its characters.

The most successful – but also the most problematic – through-line was the interrogation of different kinds of masking. Will at first seemed entirely smitten with Kit, looking at him with a wide smile and thrilled to be working with him, while the more confident Kit seemed fully in command of his own life. But what became apparent was that the openly gay Kit was also trapped. He was living his life to the full, and thus had nothing left to achieve; he was also, despite his spying, surprisingly candid about his feelings and actions. Will, despite professing sincerity, was much more guarded, and this became a source of fascination and fear for Kit, who felt unable to know Will, and thus was continually surprised by both him and by his writing. While this leant into pretty tired Bardolatrous stereotypes about Shakespeare surpassing Marlowe, the mapping of this onto sexual orientation was interesting. Kit swiped consciously at Will’s bisexuality, noting that Will’s ability to be more flexible – with his sexuality, as with his religious allegiances and with his writing – was what was going to allow him to survive, and this was the most consistent set of values interrogated by the production. The flipside of this set of connections was that they risked leaning into biphobia, as if Will’s ability to form attachments with people of multiple genders made him inherently untrustworthy, confirmed in his ultimate successful betrayal of the man he loved. While the play clearly wanted to be edgy in its breaking down of the Shakespeare myth (explicitly drawing attention to the idea that this Shakespeare was different from the one it assumed its audience believed in), the implications for its dismissive villainizing of more fluid kinds of sexual orientation felt unconsidered.

Notwithstanding, the production had some lovely moments of intimacy between the two men, and it was a thrill to see the Henry VI plays – dismissed even by the two men writing them – given serious attention. Suffolk and Margaret were evoked during the long second scene, the two authors’ rehearsal of their parting words becoming the vessel by which they articulated their own refusal to pursue a life together. The peppering of other Shakespeare quotations throughout – with Kit particularly anticipating Hamlet, culminating in a request to ‘remember me’ that suggests Hamlet would be this universe’s Will’s way of memorializing his lost love – wasn’t too heavy-handed. Somewhat clunkier were the discussions of Joan and Cade and their political allegiances and dramatic potential, scenes which felt like they were more about proving Shakespeare’s greater sophistication of thought and empathy than they were about developing a meaningful understanding of the characters. But throughout all of this, Amendt and Godwin developed a proximity to one another that, when they lost themselves in their writing, allowed them to come close to one another, Kit’s bravado and Will’s reserve giving way to the production’s best moments of touch and shared feeling.

While Born With Teeth felt under-developed, what the play did achieve was a sense of the fear of living within a repressive society. The discussion of ‘Tom’ being tortured (an under-developed thread), the introduction of plague masks (‘they’re meant to help avoid contagion), and the sense of marginalized people being made to turn on one another by a state apparatus so far removed as to be untouchable, all read as prescient concerns that offered the potential to use Marlowe and Shakespeare’s intersecting stories to illustrate contemporary struggles. But its tendency towards melodrama and a greater concern with Shakespearean mythos prevented it reaching its full potential (for which My Own Private Idaho offers a more satisfying model of Shakespearean histories being retooled for a contemporary story of queer love and betrayal). Born With Teeth, paradoxically, felt more toothless than the material deserved.

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