“This not your Mama’s Shakespeare,” warns director Ben Wolfe, about the play Born With Teeth. “I would encourage you to come in with an open mind and an open heart.”

While we will thus be deprived of the presence of the two senators of Texas, its Governor and all their closed-minded and black-hearted cohorts, this play set in Elizabethan England is really all about a totalitarian government and the terror it strikes into the hearts of the citizenry. The parallels would be amusing if they were not so dire.  

The time is 1591 and two young men live in a divided country. In this case years of religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics have made the leader of the country wary of treasonous plots. Queen Elizabeth I created a large and effective spy network, which, to quote Jennifer Sturley, dramaturg of this play, “contributed to the overwhelming sense of totalitarianism that citizens lived under.” Historians of the era might take issue with this sweeping generalization, but such is the backdrop the characters in this play see themselves in.

Born With Teeth saw its world premiere in Houston. Rob Melrose writes of the origins. “It all started with the publication of the New Oxford Shakespeare: Modern Critical Edition. In it, there is a chapter on computer analysis of texts and their finding that the Henry VI plays were a collaboration between Shakespeare and his main rival, Christopher Marlowe! Liz was immediately inspired to write a play, and as soon as it was ready, she put together an intimate reading in New York that I attended. I fell in love with it right away and pitched it as a freelance director to over twenty regional theatres, to no avail. When I became the new Artistic Director of Alley Theatre in Houston, Texas, I knew I wanted to do the world premiere of this play. It was a big hit in Houston.” That was in 2022 and the play has finally made its way to Austin. It is truly remarkable.

Bailey Ellis plays Shakespeare, and Ismael Soto III is Marlowe. To say they sizzle on stage would be an understatement. Seduction was never more finely wrought by a playwright. Even Tesla would admit there is too much electricity in the air here:  the voltage is so high it may singe those who do not heed Wolfe’s admonition.

When Kit says to William, “You are so much stupider than you look,” and Will says to Kit “You are the storm that consumes everything,” you know they are already falling in love. And when Kit finally says to Will, “Are you in truth as hollow as a gourd?,” it will come as no surprise that they eventually kiss. And ultimately, what line can be more romantic than this: “Where thou are not: desolation.”

Clearly, one must read between the lines, and being familiar with Shakespearean English (as it is now usually referred to), will be a great assistance is understanding the dialogue. Despite the challenging verbiage, both actors deliver finely tuned performances that make the historical setting quite believable.   

“We are not the stuff of tragedy,” Kit proclaims. But as everyone who sees this extraordinary play will agree, Kit Marlowe was (at least for once) quite wrong.

I know the year is young, but I expect to vote for this as the best play performed in Austin in 2024.

Visit AustinPlayhouse.com for tickets

Born With Teeth is directed by Associate Artistic Director Ben Wolfe and features Bailey Ellis as Will Shakespeare and Ismael Soto III as Kit Marlowe. It continues until April 28, 2024.

Lead photo: Soto(left) and Ellis; Images: Steve Rogers Photography

By Dr. Cliff Cunningham

Dr. Cliff Cunningham is a planetary scientist, the acknowledged expert on the 19th century study of asteroids. He is a Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia. He serves as Editor of the History & Cultural Astronomy book series published by Springer; and Associate Editor of the Journal of Astronomical History & Heritage. Asteroid 4276 in space was named in his honour by the International Astronomical Union based in the recommendation of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Dr. Cunningham has written or edited 15 books. His PhD is in the History of Astronomy, and he also holds a BA in Classical Studies.