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The Guthrie Theater is staging an MMA cage-esque match, but with literary heavyweights instead of amped-up fighters pummeling each other.

In Liz Duffy Adams' "Born With Teeth," William Shakespeare and Christopher "Kit" Marlowe face off with wits instead of fists, with words of love instead of blood as they tangle and wrap each other up in a dangerous milieu.

Adams puts these ingredients and more into a pressure cooker, then takes the lid off for the contents to blow onstage at the Minneapolis theater, where the two-hander opens Friday.

Getting the two men going at it in competition and passion proved to be an exciting dive into inventiveness and imagination for the playwright.

"It's like Elizabethan slashfic," Adams said last week before a rehearsal at the Guthrie, referencing the style known for brevity, creative license and the fact that its same-sex characters often become romantically involved.

Director Rob Melrose says his mantra for the design process was “period with an edge — Elizabethan England with a modern twist.” So Alejo Vietti designed Dylan Godwin’s red doublet to make him “look like a filleted man.”
Director Rob Melrose says his mantra for the design process was “period with an edge — Elizabethan England with a modern twist.” So Alejo Vietti designed Dylan Godwin’s red doublet to make him “look like a filleted man.”

Lynn Lane

Director Rob Melrose said that when someone could potentially be killed onstage, or have sex, or, ideally both, it really ratchets up the dramatic tension. And that is especially true for "Teeth," where Marlowe and Shakespeare are hired by a producer to do a play.

"Marlowe is a rock star and Shakespeare is really a beginner," Adams said. "They're the same age but Will is from the country and has come to London for his day job as an actor. And Marlowe's real job is being a spy but he's also this brilliant and successful poet. The nub of the story is that he's there to spy on Shakespeare. Very dangerous."

For Adams, the inciting incident for the play came a few years ago when scholars said they could scientifically prove, through analysis of stylistic fingerprints, that Shakespeare and Marlowe had collaborated on the three plays of the Henry VI history cycle. In fact, Adams said she took the title of the play from a "Henry VI: Part 3" scene.

The Duke of Gloucester, who would later become Richard III, speaks of himself: "He's born with teeth, they cried, and so I was," Adams recounted. "So, I was born to snarl and snap and bite at the world."

"Teeth," a one-act play with a running time of under 90 minutes, premiered last year at Houston's Alley Theatre, run by Melrose, who is from Edina.

What's interesting about the moment the play captures is the difference in social and literary standing between Shakespeare and Marlowe, Melrose said. The Bard is collaborating with someone who's far superior to him, at least in fame and reputation.

"It was typical to have an older, more established writer and a younger one," Melrose said, noting that Marlowe had gained fame for 'Tamburlaine the Great, parts 1 & 2,' and "Doctor Faustus" while Shakespeare only had "Titus Andronicus," "The Comedy of Errors" and maybe "The Taming of the Shrew" under his belt.

Marlowe "was basically credited with pioneering blank verse in the theater," Melrose said. "People say, if Shakespeare had been killed, instead of Marlowe, no question Marlowe would've been the more famous playwright."

"Teeth" comes at a time when a vocal, but small number of people, including Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance, are still trying to prove that the works credited to Shakespeare were written by others, with Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, as the primary candidate.

Adams is clearly not of that camp.

"I love Mark Rylance but nothing infuriates me more than that theory," said Adams. "Can I be tactful? It's idiotic and classist, and I refute it utterly."

Still, the Oxfordian movement has cultural adherents and staying power. Matthew Amendt, who plays Marlowe, has a theory about why that is so.

"I think it is less about the Earl of Oxford than it is about a huge middle finger to the academics," said the actor, who was in first class of graduates of the Guthrie Theater/University of Minnesota BFA program.

Academics, and the abstracted readings that sometimes accompany their practice, can take the fun out of work, Amendt intimated.

"When you're inside the plays — inside the verse — it feels wild, not sterile," Amendt said, adding that the Oxfordians believe no one can tell you what it all means. "You're going to have to find out for yourself."

"Teeth" is set in the 16th century in an environment of surveillance and creeping authoritarianism.

"The only reason to write historical plays is to talk about the present," Adams said. "The reason we joke about it being the anti-'Shakespeare in Love' is because Elizabethan England was not a Renaissance festival. It was a totalitarian place that was more like the Stasi in East Berlin."

That kind of society, where it is perilous for one to open themselves up to love and trust, has its shares of parallels in the 21st century.

"When I was starting to work on it, a lot of artists were thinking about how do artists survive— how do artists make art under totalitarian regimes?" said Adams. "How do we all live in a situation like that?"

One way is humor, which undercuts totalitarianism and also allows audiences to enjoy themselves. "Teeth" certainly has some of that rhythmic bite.

"I call it funny, funny, whack," said Adams. "The playwright Aaron Posner, who once directed a play of mine, calls it ha, ha, ouch! At a certain point in a show, you have to let the audience breathe."

'Born With Teeth'
By: Liz Duffy Adams. Directed by Rob Melrose.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Sat., 1 p.m. Sun. Ends April 2.
Where: Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Mpls.
Tickets: $31-$80. 612-377-2224 or