Any play that portrays a group of Shakespeare characters onstage together and has a Spinal Tap reference appeals to many of my nerdy sides at once. So perhaps it's no surprise that I think New York Shakespeare Exchange's latest offering, Island; Or, To Be or Not To Be, written by Kevin Brewer, is an utterly enjoyable evening for people at all different levels of Shakespeare knowledge. As I sat in The Connelly Theater watching the simultaneously new and familiar characters energetically interact, I was amazed at how well the spirit of Shakespeare was conveyed to me through both his words and Brewer's.
This mix of old and new is, of course, something that audiences in Shakespeare's own time would have enjoyed as well. Shakespeare was a fantastic borrower, though, as dramaturg Shane Breaux cleverly points out in his program note, "this is not the death knell for originality; on the contrary the repetition is one of the very seeds of originality. By repeating particular elements of what has come before, these plays first give us something to recognize then provide the real fun by revising those elements." I couldn't have described my enjoyment of Island better myself.
The way that these allusions are handled is also what sets this work apart from anything else I've ever seen before. First of all, Brewer's writing is spot on, with a Shakespearean flair that does not try to pass as the bard, but is undoubtedly written by someone well-versed in Will's verses. Yet the play does not try to alienate the audience by wielding this wit to show their superiority, but rather invites the audience to be in on the fun. If you have ever even heard of Shakespeare, there are countless moments where you will feel like you are part of some wonderful club. As for those who are Shakespeare experts, you will feel the same way, as will everyone in between.
Much of this is to do with the fantastic cast, and Ross Williams's excellent direction. G. Warren Stiles's set is beautifully utilized, and just like most of the Shakespeare plays I see, I wasn't aware of how many people were actually in the cast until the curtain call. Standouts include Michael Shattner as Sir Pompey Martext, Anna Paratore as Major Bellows, and Brian Cheng as Minor-Half-Deputy Silence, though all of the performances were quite strong.
Without revealing too much of the plot, I will say that Island manages to mix in contemporary elements with classical ones in a way I haven't seen done as successfully anywhere else. Billed as "a Shakespearean comedy in five acts," it is absolutely true to its word. Perhaps it should be "(almost) every Shakespearean comedy in five acts" which puts the scope of the piece in better perspective.
This production is hugely ambitious, with a number of subplots and twists throughout. In fact, I believe that this excellent ambition, which is visible everywhere in this production, ended up inhibiting certain plot lines. In other words, my one criticism is that I wanted more, so much more that I almost wish the piece had been broken up into two pieces and expanded rather than cut down. As it stands, Island is forced to draw out its ending in order to finish up every plot in a way that saps a bit of energy from the unified whole. This is not to say that I was not engaged during the end, but rather that the production seemed to come to a final conclusion more than one time.
Having said this, if you don't have time to commit to a play that's long enough to have an intermission, then this show isn't for you. But if you can, and you want an extremely entertaining, funny, and smart production, then you should hurry up and see Island; Or, To Be or Not To Be as it closes October 13th! They really do take Shakespeare and turn it up to eleven!