What Fools These Mortals Be: Kevin Brewer’s ‘Island’ at Connelly Theater

the islandCourtesy of New York Shakespeare Exchange Rehearsals for “Island.”

A luckless, drenched, and thoroughly confused batch of modern folks is shipwrecked on an obscure isle populated by loonies who think they’re living in a Shakespeare play and speak and behave accordingly. The setup is a stretch, but you won’t mind that while enjoying “Island: or, To Be or Not To Be.” Directed by Ross Williams and produced by the New York Shakespeare Exchange, this fun-filled result of a well-publicized Kickstarter campaign is now playing at the Connelly Theater.

Plot-wise, all the Bard’s heavy hitters are in the rotation: evil brothers, murdered fathers, gals disguised as lads, separated twins (plus a pair of very un-separated ones for good measure), best bros in love with the same babe, malapropistic cops, psychedelic witches, and everybody neatly paired off at the buzzer.

Female lead Katelin Wilcox as the shipwrecked Julia is endearingly believable as the starry-eyed romantic who grows accustomed to the island’s zany magic – thanks largely to the torch she carries for the dreamy “Prince” Palamon (Brad Lewandowski). The exasperated attempts of her cynical brunette bestie K (Evelyn Spahr) to snap her out of it provide some of the best laughs.

Footage from a ShakesBeer event.

Mr. Lewandowski as Palamon, equally enamored of Julia, carries the same heavy burden as Shakespeare’s original earnest lovers in that he commands a lion’s share of stage time but isn’t allowed to be as funny as the loonies. The jokes he does get all land, however, and he’s so adorably Cusack-y as the I-Wanna-Be-Your-Boyfriend fake prince that you never stop rooting for him to get the girl even though you know that outcome is never in doubt.

The clear audience favorites were the statuesque Melissa Carlile-Price as the ditzy, lustful Rosaline and Brian Cheng as the Harpo-esque Half-Deputy Silence (pause here to consider how tall an order it is to steal a Shakespeare show without speaking). Michael Shattner gets to deliver all the best dirty puns as Pompey Martext, an homage to Dogberry of “Much Ado About Nothing.” Erik Olson as Arcite, the Bill to Palamon’s Ted, is memorable despite having the least meaty of the major roles.

Another highlight was Leigh Williams as the wacky witch Asnath, bane of the Island and mother to two sinister conjoined (and, once again, lustful) daughters, who goes cackling supernova in her incredible and sizable first scene but then, to the audience’s dismay, is barely seen afterwards. (If you’re wondering why there’s a bonafide witch on the Island when everyone only thinks they’re living in Shakespeare-land… Well, let’s just say this isn’t the kind of play you pick apart.)

Your English professor probably wouldn’t accept a thesis paper on “Island,” but – as you might expect from the creators of the ShakesBeer pub crawl – you’ll laugh out loud a few dozen times (over half of them courtesy of Ms. Carlile-Price). The only sticking point is playwright Kevin Brewer’s device of incorporating actual Shakespearean lines within his own Shakespeare-homage dialogue: it works most of the time, as when an originally serious line is ironically repurposed (i.e., the way Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard did it in the “Shakespeare in Love” screenplay), but when a Bard bit is simply reused for its original intended purpose (e.g., a twin-reunion scene just recycles the appropriate lines from “Twelfth Night”), the audience is stuck wondering whether or not it’s supposed to laugh. The serious soliloquies too, of which a handful are necessary to advance the plot, are mostly spent waiting for someone else to burst onstage and say something funny. Luckily, someone always does.

“Island,” through Oct. 13 at the Connelly Theater, 220 East Fourth Street; www.shakespeareexchange.org