Two very different plays take a look at the legacy of Shakespeare, while a world premiere sends us to the past to fix the present. Born With Teeth runs through 2/25 at ArtsWest in West Seattle; Book of Will runs through 2/24 at Taproot Theatre in Greenwood; and Once More, Just for You runs through 2/25 at Green Lake’s Seattle Public Theater.
– It is a history play
– All the more reason to use our imaginations
— Will and Kit, in Born With Teeth
In a sense, all history is a rewrite. Something happened, people saw it or heard about it, and someone among them — a partisan, professed neutral, or somewhere in between — takes a go at preserving it in the record. Given the power to (re)write history, might as well make it a good one. Right?
That is (roughly) the premise from which three very different plays, on now on Seattle stages, proceed.
In West Seattle, ArtsWest takes on the two-hander Born With Teeth, in which playwright Liz Duffy Adams imagines the behind-closed-doors history of William Shakespeare and his contemporary, writer Christopher Marlowe. Three themes are at play: writing, of course (Shakespeare being presented as by far the more dedicated of the two); the pervasive cloud of suspicion all around them, brought on by the moral and religious clashes during the Elizabethan Era as tattling toadies make targets of the guilty and innocent alike; and a simmering more-than-friends desire between Shakespeare and Marlowe.
While writing frames the plot — the two convene in the back room of a bar at various points over a three-year period, privately, in order to make progress on their poems and plays — the other two themes are the meat of this show. Director Mathew Wright takes that setting and runs with it, amplifying just what these two poets might get up to in their private meeting room while fearing the swirl of spies (of which either or both might also be) all around outside their walls. The chemistry of the two actors, Ricky Spaulding and Michael Monicatti, makes the passion boil between Spaulding’s studious, relative-innocent Shakespeare and the fierce power-bottom energy of Monicatti’s Marlowe. There’s some serious heat between these two.
But it’s the heat outside that keeps this play a compelling one. Who among their writer ranks will be the next target? And the next betrayer?
It seems there’s no shortage of the latter, jockeying for position to earn the Queen’s favor and turn the heat off themselves. Marlowe has earned a trail of enemies by storing up their secrets, and bartering them for favors is presented as his main trade and currency. Shakespeare, meanwhile, has heard plenty of Marlowe’s dirty tricks. Will one betray the other? Or will someone else betray them both?
In passion and political fire, ArtsWest’s production keeps the heat up throughout Born With Teeth’s 80-minute burn.
Meanwhile, Taproot Theatre puts up a much different take on Shakespeare’s contemporaries. The two-act Book of Will, by uber-prolific playwright Lauren Gunderson, purports to tell the story of the First Folio, the epic compilation of Shakespeare’s works that solidified his legacy.
Gunderson has wide latitude to fill in the blanks — very little is known about any of it — but what comes through here isn’t particularly illuminating. In her imagining, some actors and their family members come together — motivated either by devotion to their friend’s legacy or desperation to have their own life’s work recorded, we’re not sure which — and try to secure a publisher, the rights, and the funding. There’s no suspense on whether that happened; we already know it did. Her telling of what happened in between — void of character development, any apparent purpose for half of the characters, or sense of the times — isn’t a very interesting one. Trimmed to half its length, this could be a decent-enough story about friendship and legacy. Making it into an epic, however, just puts a lot of bodies on stage.
If Book of Will is the epic for you, Taproot’s staging, directed by Karen Lund, is a robust one. The Globe Theatre on stage (by Taproot’s longtime scenic designer Mark Lund) is outstanding and instantly recognizable, as are costumes by Nanette Acosta. Reginald André Jackson is an experienced Shakespeare actor, but here gets a more playful role (as Henry Condell) that’s fun to see. Nolan Palmer is a force as renowned actor Richard Burbage.
But the real standout here is Nik Doner, as Shakespeare frenemy and rival playwright Ben Jonson. Doner’s convincing Jonson is pompous, self-assured, and a total lush. For any of us who followed a bit of Doner’s real-life journey to sobriety in his fringe show Cuddling With Strippers, his performance in this devotedly drunken role is especially magnetic. It’s also about the only element of the Book of Will’s 2.5-hour tale that left me wanting to know more.
In a very different take on rewriting history, Once More, Just for You, a brand new one from Seattle playwright Maggie Lee, finds the central character trying to rewrite the present with a narrowly tailored edit to the past.
This marks the latest in a long line of collaborations between Lee and director Amy Poisson, who now helms Seattle Public Theater. Throughout those, Lee’s plays — the widely beloved Sheathed and A Hand of Talons among them — have an extraordinary ability to transport viewers into fantastical, cool, and not particularly alien worlds (sci-fly, let’s call them) that feel familiar but allow magic to happen. So it was surprising to feel a disconnect between the world and that magic in this one.
Once More, Just for You has two worlds, past and present — a small room with a piano in the past, an inventor’s lab in the present — which central character Rae (Ina Chang) moves between using a time machine that she’s built. We take at face value that the contraption works as intended, although blasting back and forth does take its toll, particularly when undertaken too rapid-fire as Rae is intent on doing. Her present self has lab assistant Sloane (played by real-life medical doctor-slash-improviser Belinda Fu) to help keep her in check, and alive. (As she notes, wryly, “bodies are very inconvenient.”)
In the past, meanwhile, a curious relationship is building. And it’s that relationship, not the blasting box itself or the very funny exhortations from Sloane in the present, where the real meat of the story is developing. There’s a mystery unfolding, slowly, about who this young woman called Yoori (Pearl Lam) is and how, or why, Rae wants to change things with her in the past. Until then, though, the past is simply a curious, clunky piano session accompanying a writer in her work.
When the mystery finally unfolds, it’s a beautiful one, and the last 10 minutes alone make this play one to see. (So, too, does the sharp and snappy commentary that Fu delivers as Sloane, for pure levity’s sake.)
But the design here does the play a disservice. The scenic design by Parmida Ziaei nicely splits the two worlds, but the resurrection-level blasts of light (design by Dani Norberg), in particular, yank the viewer out of the intimate world of the play any time Rae hops between the two, which is often. (Note: sitting in house left may alleviate the problem.) The plot never gives us a reason to question whether the time hops are happening; we don’t need a sensory nightmare to convince us, in turn jarring focus away from the most important parts: the characters, and their relationships. Meanwhile, there are some threads in those that could use some tightening; why is Sloane so invested, for example?
The world Lee draws, however, is a lovely one, and so is the simple but remarkable conundrum it leaves us to grapple with. When a gift really is just for the recipient, we don’t get to know what happens to it after.
Born With Teeth performs through 2/25 at ArtsWest in West Seattle. Runs 80 minutes, no intermission. Tickets ($37.50; discounted tickets are available for those with financial need) and info here.
Book of Will performs through 2/24 at Taproot Theatre in Greenwood. Runs 2.5 hours with intermission. Tickets ($28-$65, depending on day and seat location) and info here.
Once More, Just for You performs through 2/25 at Seattle Public Theater at Green Lake. Runs 85 minutes, no intermission. Tickets ($10-$100, sliding scale available to all) and info here.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.