"Another Word For Beauty" Review- A Captured Pageant

The Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago, is currently presenting “Another Word For Beauty”, to run through Sunday, February 21, 2016, as part of an eight-week “Celebration of Latina/o Artists”, in collaboration with off-Loop theatres and DePaul and Northwestern University. This play, written by Academy award nominee Jose’ Rivera, directed by Steve Cosson, with music by Grammy Award winner Hector Buitrago, and choreography by Maija Garcia, along with another world premiere, “2666”, launched February 6, are the Goodman's first 2 productions this year and part of this initiative. Celebration events began January 16 and will continue through March 13. What is another word for beauty?

Carmen Zilles, Danaya Esperanza, Helen Céspedes, Stephanie Andrea Barron and Zoe Sophia Garcia

 

That is the last question asked of one of the contenders for a beauty pageant crown held within the Buen Pastor Women’s prison in Bogota’, Columbia, a real event within a real edifice that warehouses some 2000 women.  From all accounts, Buen Pastor could well be called “another word for hell”. Conditions are appalling, and the tales of torture, discrimination, armed violence, rape and political reprisal told by the contestants in between their dance numbers and makeup sessions are almost certainly taken from life.

Marisol Miranda and Socorro Santiago

 However, possibly because the witty dialogue and musical segments of the play are so much more in evidence, the scenes of political terror and injustice pale in significance in this production- they simply don’t always ring true. The relatively short scenes, in-between the contest numbers, where the contestants demonstrate the events that earned them their sentences, or act out their dreams of redemption and revenge displayed sentiments that seemed unearned, which made them seem paltry. As pointed out by the linguist guest of this reviewer, this was essentially a shame, because their stories weren’t trivial, and deserved more emphasis. The one area, though, in which this play excels at demonstrating horror is in its demonstration of the way locked-up women lose their children, who are torn from them at three. The suffering displayed, and returned to throughout the program, was graphic and profound.

Carmen Zilles, Yunuen Pardo and Zoe Sophia Garcia

Despite the uneven treatment, the always superbly mastered stagecraft at the Goodman provides a spectacle both heartwarming and thought provoking. There is something inherently winning about the ability of a theatrical production to transcend what at first seems to be a conundrum. A song and dance about atrocities?! And yet, this is exactly the point that “Another Word For Beauty” intends to make.The program at Buen Pastor is intended to be a morale booster for the inmates, to take them out of their awful surroundings, to revive for them the pipe dreams all women cut their teeth on. Don’t all girls dream of being crowned Queen For A Day, of grabbing the brass ring solely due to their essential loveliness and, of course, their ability to demonstrate “talent”, or at least, to answer a simple question in a profound way? And the winning contestant does not fail in this regard. When asked to name another word for beauty, she replies, “There is none”.

Danaya Esperanza,Carmen Zilles, Zoe Sophia Garcia, Socorro Santiago, Stephanie Andrea Barron and Helen Cespedes

Although the production is certainly too long at three hours, and too often substitutes profanity for more sophisticated verbal repartee, it does a very good job of demonstrating the essential camaraderie of these women’s truncated lives. Despite a little bickering and some jealous squabbling, they work together with their colleagues on the various tiers of the prison to get ready for and put on the contest. Although one woman voices her objections to and skepticism about the suspected trivial, diversionary nature of the effort, she is overruled. As one woman exclaims, “We’re not whores, pushers or mules.”

Heather Velasquez, Stephanie Andrea Barron and Socorro Santiago

The play and the pageant within the play  is a  musically and visually rich, often hilarious, extremely clever and politically astute reprisal of the typical pageant, which this most decidedly is NOT. The host is unabashedly lascivious, the”talent” sections and call for response to questions free the women to display the terrible past as a series of gaffes and vignettes. This is satire both meaningful and yet lighthearted.

Helen Cespedes and Dan Domingues

The sold-out show has been everywhere recommended. For tickets to this and other great shows at The Goodman, and information on “A Celebration of Latino Artists”, go to GoodmanTheatre.org.

The Cast of " Another Word For Beauty"

Photos courtesy of Liz Lauren

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