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You might not see sparks flying off the Guthrie Theater's McGuire Proscenium Stage as the competition heats up between the two greatest writers of the Elizabethan age, but you can feel the heat of their jabs and parries.

Christopher "Kit" Marlowe and William "Will" Shakespeare go at it with metaphorical rapiers in "Born with Teeth," Liz Duffy Adams' 90-minute one-act that reimagines the men in a literary life-and-death cage match. The competition draws them closer, and that leads to a complicated desire to both consume and extinguish each other.

Director Rob Melrose's captivating production grabs you by the throat and rarely lets up. Melrose meets Adams' wittily imaginative script with surprises of his own. His production takes place in Michael Locher's simple, geometric set with a long, almost Putin-esque table (the show happens over the plague years, so these two may have presaged the Russian leader's comically long meeting tables).

Carolina Ortiz Herrera neon-like lighting sets the mood and lifts the performances of the two actors. And costumer Alejo Vietti gets it down to the details: Marlowe's jacket includes golden zippers while Shakespeare's doublet and half-unzipped jacket makes it look like he has been cut open.

Melrose, who staged the world premiere of "Teeth" last spring with the same actors at Houston's Alley Theatre, where he is the artistic director, draws magnetically arresting performances from actors Matthew Amendt and Dylan Godwin Their Kit and Will are men in opposite phases of the moon — one waning, the other waxing.

The actors handle the play's delicious language, including rhymed and blank verses plus snippets of Shakespearean sonnets, with aplomb. Adams writes not with a pen so much as a razor blade and the play cuts to the bone as Kit and Will trade barbs, ambitions and, ultimately, places in a history play that rewrites our understanding of these two figures.

"We aren't citizens; we're subjects," Will tells us early on, explaining that Elizabethan England is a totalitarian state ruled by fear. He wants to survive, and thus he stays low, using his work not to reveal himself but to conceal who he really is.

By contrast, Marlowe sees his words as opportunities for revelatory bravado. In fact, playwriting is not even his principal pursuit. He is a spy, willing to trade information on people's religious beliefs to increase his power and sate his large appetites. Amendt renders a savagely beautiful performance and his Kit blazes in like a light in the firmament. For his Marlowe is already a star famous for crafting "Tamburlaine the Great," "The Jew of Malta" and "Doctor Faustus."

Godwin's Will, by contrast, begins so meekly, that we want to comfort him with a hug. He moves around like an apology on two feet, a man whose vocal and gestural quietude seems to make him less a literary light than a shrinking flower.

As the play progresses, we get a clearer understanding of the type of knowledge that Will must have had in order to write the vilely conniving Iago of "Othello," which will come later along with his fame. For Shakespeare must have understood not only Machiavelli's "The Prince" but also Sun Tzu's "The Art of War."

Surprisingly in Adams' imaginative telling, Shakespeare in the end, takes on a shade of the hubris that characterizes Marlowe.

"You don't know me," he tells us. "You know a fairy tale of a country boy made good."

'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