Originally Published on Elements of Madness
Over twenty years after his first experimental Shakespeare film adaptation, Tromeo and Juliet (1996), Lloyd Kaufman and the team at Troma Entertainment have released yet another irreverent and outlandish adaptation with #ShakespearesShitstorm, a wacky musical-comedy and gross-out fest based on The Tempest. Featured at the virtual Fantasia Film Festival this year, Kaufman’s unconventional take on The Bard not only translates Shakespeare for a contemporary audience but also strips it of all its academic pretension and fills it with unapologetic vulgarity. Kaufman’s film whirls through the story of The Tempest in a constant state of orgiastic frenzy and revels in images that you might not want to see more than once, pushing the limits of what is acceptable and necessary to show on screen. #ShakespearesShitstorm, while not for everyone, has the makings of a cult film that just might find its place among a select audience of contemporary Shakespeare lovers who also appreciate a crazy time at the cinema.
In Kaufman’s version of The Tempest, Big Al (Abraham Sparrow) is a drug-industry tycoon who has struck gold with his latest pill, Safespacia, which promises to protect the young and “entitled” from any and all social discomfort. The story opens with Big Al’s expensive boat-party, where funders of his company, Avonbard, are enjoying themselves as Big Al’s son, Ferdinand (Erin Patrick Miller), tries to keep things under control. Meanwhile, hidden in a nightclub/secret lab in Tromaville, New Jersey, Prospero (Lloyd Kaufman) plots his revenge on Big Al for ending his pharmaceutical career years ago. With a bit of whale laxative and help from his spies on the boat, Prospero arranges for a literal shitstorm that causes Big Al’s party to wash up on the godforsaken shores of Tromaville.
As the definition of “shitstorm” provided at the beginning of the film suggests, a movie as outlandish as #ShakespearesShitstorm isn’t easy to talk about because it is so utterly out of control that it offers no logical starting point for discussion. It may be best to begin by asking if the film achieves its purpose, which seems to be breaking down the barriers of intellectualism and getting to the juicy pulp of Shakespeare in a way that a new audience can appreciate. The film certainly achieves this purpose, 110%; however, does that make it a praiseworthy film that audiences will want to watch over and over again? Maybe, if this kind of self-indulgent gross-out extravagance is your thing. The film makes no excuses or apologies for its images, making vulgarity the norm with disturbing sights like the bunch of mutant animals in Prospero’s lab that have sprouted oversized human genitals. It also doesn’t build towards a central moment of violence or a visual climax, but rather, immediately breaks down the door and announces itself with the storm of whale feces in the opening scenes, which causes a majority of the cast to spend the first chunk of the film covered in excrement. The generally vomit-inducing style of outlandish images, crass humor, and bathroom jokes that Kaufman chooses for his film isn’t particularly necessary to make a wild Shakespeare adaptation. However, for the most part, there is nothing objectively wrong with the images in the film, aside from the completely unnecessary depiction of suicide in the very first scene. For #ShakespearesShitstorm, it really comes down to what you find enjoyable and what you can stomach. Some may even find this style to be an extension of Shakespeare’s own crude humor.
Aside from the film’s outright celebration of the utterly disgusting, Kaufman’s creative reworking of Shakespeare’s characters in a contemporary setting makes for an amusing new take on the classic story. The snubbed scientist Prospero wants to stand on the right side of history with his efforts to end opioid addiction, but he is also totally wrapped up in his own selfish schemes and is completely clueless when it comes to political correctness. Although he is a ridiculous caricature, he is also a complex character who genuinely thinks he is doing what is best to help the world. However, he ends up offending a lot of people along the way with his insensitiveness. As #ShakespearesShitstorm delves into Prospero’s backstory, the film heavily targets cancel-culture and the social media generation. Kaufman turns the two comic-fool roles into young social media professionals, Steph (Zoë Geltman) and Trini (Dylan Greenberg), who walk around a never-ending circle of politically correct eggshells and take extreme personal offense to almost everything. The film is so chaotic, however, that it is difficult to discern a clear political message. It certainly exposes the hypocrisy of those who claim to be social-justice warriors but only perpetuates the intolerance that they claim to fight against. The film also makes fun of the other side of the political spectrum with Prospero’s completely misguided interpretation of the social justice warriors’ intentions. If anything, the film self-righteously calls out both sides of the spectrum for being unwilling to listen and wraps itself in layers of defense with its incomprehensible style.
At the politically disinterested, blissfully amoral heart of the plot are the young lovers, Prospero’s daughter Miranda (Kate McGarrigle) and Ferdinand, who form the middle ground in the midst of a seesawing political message. McGarrigle brings a comedic believability to her obvious and corny dialogue, making this dialogue work and giving the film an ironic and self-aware tone that saves it from simply becoming a harsh critique of the millennial generation. There’s also the aloof Caliban (Monique Dupree), who provides a stable center in the middle of the ridiculous shouting matches in which characters scream irrelevant political slogans.
There’s a reason that your high school English teacher spent so much time typing up a guide to all the characters and their relationships for you to reference during your freshman-year Shakespeare unit. Shakespeare’s plays can get sticky and confusing, and, in its own way, #ShakespearesShitstorm honors the original author’s well-crafted web of chaos. With extravagantly silly characters and a crazy, drug-induced party that takes up a majority of the film, nothing in #ShakespearesShitstorm is certain. It is a well-intentioned idea, but with its special brand of imagery, not everyone will be able to watch it all the way through. True to its title, Kaufman’s version of The Tempest has several merits, but in the end, it is totally and completely out of control.
Final Score: D+
"Our embodied spectator, possibly perverse in her fantasies and diverse in her experience, possesses agency...finally, she must now be held accountable for it."