Stage Review: The Tempest at ZJU

Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre offers a tempestuous take on Shakespeare’s classic.

Photo at Top: Elif Savas, Bert Emmett, Jonica Patella as Ariel, Prospero, and Caliban

Veering wildly but enjoyable away from what Shakespeare intended, writer-director Jana Wimer’s science-fiction update of The Tempest adopts an approach combining elements of Dionysus in ’69 and cult-camp comedy: like The Performance Group’s adaptation of Euripides’ The Bacchae, The Tempest interpolates new action to deconstruct the original; like a camp movie, The Tempest uses the visual elements of staging, costume, and performance to undermine the text. The result, currently on stage at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre in North Hollywood, is amusing, but to truly appreciate it, viewers should be at least familiar with the Cliff Notes version of the original. (No, having watched Forbidden Planet does not count – despite the science fiction trappings.)

The Tempest: Alonso, Atonion, Ferdinand, etc
Top: Jason Britt, Mark Dakota. Bottom: Emma Pauly, Vanessa Cate, Zack Zoda, Ernest Kearney.

In a nutshell, Propsero (Bert Emmett) is an exiled duke, who has been living on an island with his daughter Miranda (Alex Kereszti) since his position was usurped by his brother, Antonio. A man of knowledge (his penchant for studying instead of attending affairs of state is at least partially responsible for his downfall), Prospero is capable of commanding the very elements, orchestrating the titular storm that stands his enemies on the shore of his island. With the help Ariel (Elif Savas) and Caliban (Jonica Patella) – two local inhabitants he has subjugated – Prospero contrives to have Miranda fall in love with Ferdinand (Vanessa Cate), son of the Alsonso, the King of Naples, who aided in Antonio’s effort to replace Prospero as Duke. Meanwhile, a resentful Caliban and some of the shipwrecked underlings of Alsonso and Antonio conspire to kill Alsonso and/or Propsero…

The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays, though it presents some problems for modern authors: namely, that Prospero, though presented as a wronged many seeing justice, is a morally ambiguous character at best, who uses and manipulates characters to achieve his goals, sometimes against their will (in the case of Ariel and, especially, Caliban). The critical defense of the play is to see Propsero less as a character than as a surrogate for the playwright, magically manipulating characters to tell a story with a happy ending (just before the final curtain, Propsero asks the audience to signal their forgiveness of him by applauding).

As you can probably imagine, all this happy ending, reconciliation, and forgiveness is a bridge too far for the co-creator of Urban Death: Tour of Terror. Wimer mocks the story by adopting the trappings of a low-budget science fiction film: instead of a staff, Prospero’s magical power is wielded through a push-button hand glove; one character (played Mark Dakota) is painted silver to resemble an android; and in perhaps the funniest conceit, Ariel is re-imagined to resemble one of the Na’vi from James Cameron’s Avatar. (The not so subtle joke is that the Na’vi were a science-fiction version of Native Americans having their homeland invaded by white imperialists – which casts Prospero in the role of the invader.)

thetempestzju_postcardThis camp approach is good for more than a few laughs, but the play doesn’t really reach warp speed until the conclusion, which we can’t give away here without spoiling the whole thing – though we will allow that the body count is closer to Hamlet than The Tempest. Emmett is the straight man in this production, playing Prospero with an authority emphasizing the character’s unseemly side (which hints at the altered conclusion). Dakota is a hoot as the android, and Savas is fine as Ariel, especially her a cappella singing, used to bewitch human characters. We’re not convinced of the wisdom of the trans-gender casting of Vanessa Cate as Ferdinand, though one could argue that the sapphic understones are in line with the Euro-trash ambiance the show emulates with its sci-fi trappings (the show often feels like a knockoff of 1960s Italian sci-fi films).

“Some kinds of baseness are nobly undergone, and most poor matters point to rich ends,” says Ferdinand at one point. Wimer’s take on The Tempest points in the opposite direction, taking something intended to be rich and dragging it down to base levels. The effect is less cynical than oddly joyful: whereas the original expected us to forgive Prospero for being a dick (and, by extension Shakespeare for letting him off the hook), this revision earns credit for calling out both character and playwright, with irony that slices like a knife.

The Tempest concludes its run at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre this weekend, with performances at 8:30pm on Friday, December 16 and at 7pm on Sunday, December 18. The address is 4850 Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood, 91601. Get more info at the website

Image Credits: Photographs by Jana Wimer; Poster by Marti Matulis & Jana Wimer.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.