Last year, the New York Shakespeare Exchange debuted with an excellent production of King John—to this day one of the best Off-Off-Broadway shows I have seen. At first, it was a little disheartening to learn that artistic director Ross Williams had chosen to follow it up with a comedy in the style of Shakespeare instead of one by the Bard himself. Those of us who have suffered through the criminally popular Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) know that spoofs of these kind are often reduced to lampooning the most surface aspects of Shakespeare’s plays—and even more highbrow attempts, like Arthur Phillips’ shallow and narcissistic novel The Tragedy of Arthur, still tend to fail in both spirit and tone.
What a delight, then, to discover Kevin Brewer’s Island; Or, to Be Or Not to Be, which embraces a plethora of Shakespearean tropes in an absurd plot that almost defies summary: a “pretty well off” family used to vacation in an abandoned castle on a small island. To celebrate the end of their stay they would hold a masquerade and each year chose a different theme. One year, they picked historical leaders—unfortunately, the man playing King John III (Eric Percival) fell on his head and awoke from a brief unconsciousness believing in his own fiction. In the twenty years that followed, his family waited patiently for his mental return, all the while continuing to act out their roles and even having children who were never let in on the secret. That is, until a shipwreck brings the very contemporary Julia (Katelin Wilcox), K (Evelyn Spahr), and Julia’s twin brother Aaron (Adam Patterson) onto the island. Also: John’s brother, Richard (Zac Hoogendyk), plans regicide; his son, Palamon (Brad Lewandowski), falls in love with Julia, while Rosaline (Melissa Carlile-Price) falls in love with Julia when she is disguised as her brother; Rosaline’s brother, Arcite (Erik Olson), also falls in love with Julia—but that is only because he thinks she is K, who also cross-dresses—and then, there is the overzealous, malapropism-prone magistrate, Martext (Michael Shattner), and his band of deputies, including Minor-Half-Deputy Silence (Brian Cheng), a sort of Looney Tunes version of Harpo Marx (we almost expect him to blow up and emerge from the smoke with a sign reading, “OUCH”). And, because of course, there is a witch, Asnath (Leigh Williams), who, along with her conjoined twin daughters, Timandra (Virginia Donohoe) and Phrynia (Elizabeth Neptune), kidnap and drug Aaron as a means of continuing the family line. Asnath also talks frequently about killing everyone. Got it? Doesn’t especially matter.
Narratively, what separates Island from its inferior look-alikes is the introduction of Julia, K, and Aaron. Shakespeare played with genres that had inevitable conclusions (the comedies in marriages, the tragedies in death, and the histories in, well, history), so he ceaselessly ironized his characters—we can laugh at Orsino, Richard III, and even Hamlet because we already know what is going to happen to them. And yet, we are simultaneously engaged in the action, cringing at every wrong move. Here, the three contemporary characters assume the position we have held for years: they observe the trivialities of court and romantic intrigue while eventually taking parts in it themselves. More than anything, Island is a very knowing love letter to bardolatry.
The cast, as in King John, is terrific across the board—no small feat for a theater working on a budget. Ms. Carlile-Price’s frenetic Rosaline is unnervingly funny; her passion is so violent that when she occasionally ends sentences with the expression, “I could kill myself,” it is the safety of others for which we are concerned. Mr. Percival, who plays the closest Island comes to a serious role, brings a wholly unexpected sadness to this otherwise manic stage, and I was delighted with how immediately he moved me—as tragedies need clowns, so comedies need their tragedians. Most impressive, however, is Mr. Shattner, a supreme comic actor who makes virtually every line out of his mouth hysterical. On paper, for example, there is nothing especially funny about confusing “masturbate” with “magistrate,” but he bellows, “I am a Masturbate!” with such pride and sincerity that we cannot help but crack up. And, then, when someone says “magistrate,” he titters with the infectious laughter of a little boy who has just heard a dirty word in class.
To quote Martext, Island is “a hit! A very palatable hit!”