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Asolo Rep offers new take on Shakespeare and Marlowe

"Born With Teeth" playwright Liz Duffy Adams builds on historical evidence to weave an intrigue-filled tale of the playwrights as collaborators.

The Abbey Theatre's production of "Born With Teeth" runs through March 29 at Asolo Repertory Theatre.
The Abbey Theatre's production of "Born With Teeth" runs through March 29 at Asolo Repertory Theatre.
Image courtesy of Lynn Lane
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Costume dramas like “Shakespeare in Love” paint a pretty picture of Elizabethan times. Asolo Rep’s latest drama doesn’t. “Born with Teeth” is far less flattering — because it’s true to life. It’s a portrait of two artists, William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. 

The young Bard is an “upstart crow” from the country breaking into the playwriting game. Marlowe’s the cock-of-the-walk in London’s edgy theater scene. In Adams’ play, they’re bottled up in a rented room writing the Henry the Sixth history plays. 

Sounds like lofty highbrow fare on Masterpiece Theatre, right? In “Born with Teeth,” it’s more like the dirty deeds of a Cold War spy thriller. The England of 1591 was a brutal totalitarian regime. Adams grounds the playwrights’ beautiful words in that ugly truth. There’s more to it, of course. To get the whole picture, we spoke to playwright Liz Duffy Adams.

Liz Duffy Adams
Courtesy image
Let’s start with an elevator statement. How would you define “Born with Teeth” … in 50 words of less?

(laughs) In a nutshell? It’s a festive comedy; it's a spy thriller; it's a love story. It’s also an examination of how artists survive in a totalitarian regime.

That’s fascinating. People often sentimentalize Elizabethan times. It strikes me your play pokes a pin in that balloon.

Absolutely! Elizabethan England was definitely not a Renaissance fair. It was a proto-fascist police state.

That’s a great way to put it. If you’ve studied this period, you know that. But it rarely comes up in plays and films. Kudos for setting the record straight.

Thanks. “Burning Doors” by Belarus Free Theater was one major influence; I saw it at La Mama and it really moved me. It’s a play about artists surviving under a totalitarian regime — and it was created by artists working in just such a regime. One of the collaborators was a member of Pussy Riot.

Wow! I was just thinking of them. 

When I saw this play, I’d already started working on “Born with Teeth.” I kept asking myself: Why do these playwrights matter now? How does their world speak to our world? I needed to be clear on that. When I saw “Burning Doors,” it electrified my mental synapses. I knew enough about Elizabethan repression to see the parallels to today. 

Shakespeare always managed to navigate to safety; Marlowe always courted trouble and wound up assassinated. Thomas Kyd, who wrote “The Spanish Tragedy," was arrested and tortured. He was a very popular playwright. But the Privy Council broke his fingers, and he never wrote another play. The wrong word or thought could get you killed in the 16th century. There was no safety for Elizabethan artists back then.

And you’ve put two of the greatest Elizabethan artists together. It’s a great concept, but is it plausible?

It’s proven, actually — and that was really my starting point. I’d read that scholars had done a computational analysis of Marlowe and Shakespeare’s use of language in their plays. Based on that, they proved that they worked together on the three Henry the Sixth history plays. My hair stood on end when I found out about their collaboration.

And your play lets us see them collaborate. So …“Born with Teeth” is basically a writer’s room?

Yes. Just to be clear, Marlowe and Shakespeare didn’t write all three Henry the Sixth plays in one session. My play unfolds in three separate scenes at different times.

“Born with Teeth” is about the writing process, but it’s also a character study of two writers. For Shakespeare’s character, that’s tough. There’s next to zero biographical data about him.

I love that you say that. “Born with Teeth” actually plays with the reason that he’s a blank slate. Shakespeare didn’t want the world to know his true self.

And that’s in sharp contrast to your Marlowe character — who was constantly self-promoting and selling his personal brand. You’d never suspect he was a master of spycraft.

No, you wouldn’t.

Matthew Amendt stars as Christopher Marlowe and Dylan Godwin plays William Shakespeare in "Born With Teeth," playing at Asolo Rep through March 29.
Image courtesy of Sorcha Augustine
What inspired you to shine a light on Elizabethan espionage?

I’m deeply indebted to Christopher Nicholl’s “The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe.” He’s a historian and it's non-fiction. It’s an absolute page-turner — and a big influence on “Born with Teeth.”

Your take on late-1500s England reminds me of Terry Gilliam’s 20th century “Brazil” You are being watched! People are plotting against you! Paranoia isn’t madness — it’s a clear-eyed perception of reality.

That ubiquitous paranoia was very real in Elizabethan times. And I definitely see echoes of “Brazil.”

It occurs to me that all Elizabethan playwrights had to think like secret agents — even the ones who weren’t spies. As you said, the wrong word could get you killed.

That’s true — and that threat is hanging in the air for Shakespeare and Marlowe. They constantly challenge each other: Here’s a great idea for a scene. No, we can’t do that. That’ll get us arrested. 

It’s a good bet that playwrights are having the same conversation today in Putin’s Russia.

They’re having it around the world.

Final thoughts?

I just want to say that I’m in love with everyone involved with “Born with Teeth.” Director Rob Melrose definitely gets it. The two actors are absolutely brilliant — their performances are incandescent. I loved what they did at the Alley Theatre premiere, which Rob also directed. As a playwright, I’m incredibly happy — and lucky — to come see them again on the Asolo Rep stage.



Marty Fugate

Marty Fugate is a writer, cartoonist and voiceover actor whose passions include art, architecture, performance, film, literature, politics and technology. As a freelance writer, he contributes to a variety of area publications, including the Observer, Sarasota Magazine and The Herald Tribune. His fiction includes sketch comedy, short stories and screenplays. “Cosmic Debris,” his latest anthology of short stories, is available on Amazon.

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