“I’m just sharpening my teeth,” the sly playwright Christopher “Kit” Marlowe teases Will Shakespeare early on in Liz Duffy Adams’ clever, enormously entertaining two-hander, “Born with Teeth.”
Workshopped in 2019 at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company, it’s now in its Bay Area premiere here.
“I think you were born with teeth!” gasps Will.
Set in the 1590s in a London tavern, Adams’ well-researched play is full of intrigue. Catholicism and the Church of England have long been fighting for dominance, and under the staunch Protestant rule of Elizabeth, a citizen can be arrested, tortured or even put to death for treason—that is, for promoting Catholicism, or apparently even atheism. No one can be trusted. Young Marlowe (who in fact died just short of age 30), as it happens, is a spy for the queen (invaluable Bay Area dramaturg Philippa Kelly’s program notes are quite helpful, as the rapid banter of the opening scenes takes a little getting used to).
At the beginning, the two playwrights—the well-established Marlowe (“Tamburlaine”) and the “Upstart Crow” Shakespeare—are meeting for the first time to collaborate on a play, “Henry VI, Part 1.”
In a fast-paced 80-plus minutes divided into three scenes, the two men—the brash, devilish Kit and the earnest “obedient schoolboy” Will, as Kit calls him (although the two were in fact the same age)—spar, flirt and reveal themselves in myriad ways. But this is no light comedy; there’s unexpected and emotionally involving drama ahead as the relationship unfolds.
And under Josh Costello’s always-impeccable direction, Aurora’s two actors effortlessly wring every morsel of comedy and inner angst from the tightly woven script.
As usual, Costello moves his actors around Aurora’s intimate playing area in creative ways; there’s never a moment that feels false or overly (or statically) staged. Here, the simple, period-perfect set design (by Kate Boyd)—a long wooden table, a few stools and chairs, a chandelier—and costumes (by Ulises Alcala) bear proof that live theater needs no bells and whistles; a good script, clever director and perfectly cast actors suffice.
And Costello does indeed excel at choosing exactly the right actors. Here, Dean Linnard as the already-famous Kit stalks his prey, taking full possession of the room, doing everything he can to confuse the eager, not-yet-well-known Will. He’s so dangerously seductive that Will calls him an “opportunistic slut.”
And Brady Morales-Woolery’s Will, struggling to keep his own counsel in the face of Kit’s mystifying manipulations, is a perfect foil, revealing hints of his inner life in ways that perfectly align with this carefully calibrated gem of a play.
The world has wondered for the past few centuries who exactly the historically elusive Shakespeare was. Liz Duffy Adams has an answer of sorts, and in this play, such a perfect match for Aurora Theatre’s special gifts, that answer, within a complex story of two gifted writers in dangerous circumstances, makes for super-smart entertainment.
“Born with Teeth” runs through Oct. 1 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets start at $45 with various discounts available. Call (510) 843-4822 or visit auroratheatre.org.