If indeed the whole world is a stage, where does that put the dressing rooms? As someone who comes from a theater background, I can honestly say that Shakespeare was only half right when he said that “the play is the thing.”

More often than not, there is much more melodrama, romance, intrigue and suspense going on backstage. I quit working in theater when the backstage politics became more daunting than the play itself. If you want to see real drama and absurd comedy, stick around after the curtain goes down.

Writers have attempted to capture this milieu in all its glory, and usually their efforts turn to farce. Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway” was an excellent example of what can happen when backstage politics become more important that the play, while “Noises Off” took the practice to the extreme.

John Turturro’s “Illuminata,” based on Brandon Cole’s play and written for the screen by Cole and Turturro, examines the sexual politics that are played out by a theater troupe in turn of the century Chicago. Even though “Illuminata” is a handsome film with strong performances, it is also a hard film to recommend.

While I found myself enchanted with the premise and the performances, I didn’t feel compelled to shout it from the highest mountain after the film was over. “Illuminata” is like a quick fix. You find yourself distracted and amused for two hours, but then after the lights go up and the curtain goes down, life goes on.

Life may not go on for the residents of a Chicago repertory theater. On the brink of financial ruin, the theater needs a hit. While the theater owners (Beverly D’Angelo, Donal McCann) prefer to play it safe and present Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” in-house playwright Tuccio (Turturro) demands that they do his latest drama, “Illuminata.”

Tuccio gets his chance when a performer is stricken ill during the current show, and he quickly steps in to pick up the pieces by presenting his play. Even though the production is still a work in progress, Tuccio throws caution to the wind and his actors to the critics. When the reviews arrive the next day, they are notorious.

In order to salvage the play, the cast and crew initiate a series of romantic dalliances, some real, others contrivances. Romantic musical chairs are always good for a laugh or two, and there are some comical complications and couplings.

The cast and crew hope to change the mind of a foppish critic (Christopher Walken, chewing the scenery as fast as they can put it up) by sacrificing to him the male cast member he found attractive (Bill Irwin, very funny). Tuccio also pays a visit to an aging stage diva (a luminous Susan Sarandon) looking for financing and getting much more than he bargained for.

The film has an uneven tone, walking a fine line between melodrama and farce. The dramatic moments are fine, and the film is frequently funny, but when the two start to get in the way of each other, “Illuminata” falls apart.

Fortunately, Turturro has handpicked a strong and capable cast. The best moments belong to Turturro’s real life wife Katherine Borowitz, who plays the theater’s leading lady and Tuccio’s lover. Borowitz commands the screen every second she is on it, delivering a performance that transcends the material. There’s honesty and emotion in every line she delivers.

Rufus Sewell swaggers with efficiency as the cocky leading man, while Georgina Cates shines as the object of his affection. I appreciated Ben Gazzara’s small turn as the theater’s senior resident, and I absolutely adored Aida Turturro.

John Turturro is the only weak link among the cast. He never makes us believe Tuccio is worth all of the trouble these people go through. He’s stubborn and arrogant, and even in the lighter moments Turturro plays him with such angst you wonder if he’s blocked.

Behind the camera, Turturro is more assured and competent. He effectively recreates time and place, even though the film is a little dark.

I can see Turturro’s attraction to the material. There are some wonderful passages and characters in “Illuminata,” the type of moments that make live theater so electric and alive. By transferring those moments to film, he reduces the electricity to mere sparks.



John Turturro, Katherine Borowitz, Susan Sarandon, Rufus Sewell, Christopher Walken, Beverly D’Angelo, Aida Turturro, Georgina Cates, Ben Gazzara, Bill Irwin in a film directed by John Turturro. Rated R. 111 Minutes.


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