Ancient poets like Homer aside, there aren’t many authors whose very existence is debated as much as William Shakespeare. There are ardent factions devoted to the “authorship question” of whether Shakespeare actually wrote any of his plays or was simply a front man or invention of somebody else.
Even the majority who believe Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare generally accept that he probably had co-authors for some of the plays, especially the weaker ones that vary wildly in style.
In recent years, some scholars have become so convinced that Shakespeare collaborated with Christopher Marlowe on his “Henry VI” trilogy that the 2016 “New Oxford Shakespeare” credits the two playwrights side by side.
Playwright Liz Duffy Adams imagines that untold collaboration between the two great contemporaries in her superb two-person play “Born with Teeth” at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company, fresh from its premiere at Houston’s Alley Theatre last year.
In artistic director Josh Costello’s fast-paced staging, it’s a relentless push-and-pull between the two writers, a cat-and-mouse game in which Marlowe constantly questions, flirts with, mocks and threatens Shakespeare while the latter just wants to work on the play they’ve been commissioned to write.
Scant biographical details and obsessive textual analysis for hints in his writings have led some to speculate that maybe Shakespeare was secretly gay or secretly Catholic at a time of state purges of that particular faith. All of those questions come up in Adams’ play, but the uncertainty itself is the point.
Her Shakespeare is an intensely private person, keeping his head down to escape notice for his personal life or views at a time of intrigue and peril. He describes Elizabethan England as a totalitarian police state in which the common people have no rights to protect. “We aren’t citizens, we’re subjects,” he observes.
Meanwhile, Marlowe is fast and loud, getting into plenty of trouble and cultivating powerful friends to get him out of it. He’s playing a dangerous game to save his own skin as the government hungers for heretics to persecute, and he urges Shakespeare to join him or be fed to the machine himself.
The two couldn’t be more different. When they meet in 1591 in the play, Marlowe is the most prominent playwright of the time, while Shakespeare is an early-career scribbler just starting to make waves.
They’re the same age, as Will observes more than once, but in terms of their body of work they barely overlap. Shakespeare’s greatest works are all ahead of him, while Marlowe is at the peak of his fame, living fast and soon to die young.
Dean Linnard is magnetic as Marlowe, volatile, overbearing, bawdy, self-aggrandizing, seductive and combative. He’s also feverish, rocket-fueled with nervous energy. He can’t sit still for a moment without bounding up and pouncing on Shakespeare, figuratively or literally.
Brady Morales-Woolery’s Shakespeare proves a perfect foil to Marlowe’s onslaught. Guarded, bewildered, exasperated and earnest, he’s mild-mannered in a quietly brilliant way that deftly parries every thrust.
Adams has a long history of Bay Area productions with various companies, but it’s been too long, and it’s a delight to have a new play of hers to savor. And there’s plenty to savor here.
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From her post-apocalyptic “Dog Act” to “Or,” her deliciously witty play about playwright Aphra Behn, Adams’ plays are always marked by dazzlingly inventive language. The relentless verbal sparring between Shakespeare and Marlowe is a beguiling blend, poetic enough to be suggestive of the period while also accessibly, amusingly modern.
As befits two writers of such genius, their dialogue is devilishly clever and incessantly quotable. It would be impossible to write down all the great lines in the play, because they just keep coming.
Adams deftly inserts plenty of historical details, but ultimately it doesn’t matter how much of what’s depicted may or may not have happened. Her versions of Shakespeare and Marlowe are irresistible. Every moment between the two is electrically charged, whether with danger, sexual tension or just writers lingering lovingly on language.
It’s a wonderfully funny, sexy and suspenseful play that’s thrilling from beginning to end. One can’t help but suspect that its subjects would relish its craft as they do each other’s.
Contact Sam Hurwitt at email@example.com, and follow him at Twitter.com/shurwitt.
‘BORN WITH TEETH’
By Liz Duffy Adams, presented by Aurora Theatre Company
Through: Oct. 1
Where: Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley (also streaming Sep. 26-Oct. 1
Running time: One hour and 25 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $20-$65; 510-843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org