Now at the Goodman Theatre and under the direction of Steve Cosson, José Rivera’s Another Word for Beauty is not the world’s greatest production—nor is it supposed to be. Instead, this play is a glimpse into the lives of the incarcerated women of El Buen Pastor Prison in Colombia as they compete in its annual beauty pageant for the title of “Señorita Simpatía.” Rivera’s storyline humanizes these women. He defies the stereotypes one expects to find in a beauty pageant. The characters he creates are real, and the circumstances surrounding each of their incarcerations cause the audience to sympathize with them.
Rivera tries to do too many things at once in this play, to the point where it seems overstuffed and messy. He takes on the enormous task of providing the back-stories for almost all of the characters, yet once the pageant begins in the second act the audience never hears from a number of these characters again. The time spent providing these character histories in the first act could be better spent by focusing on the actual beauty pageant contestants. These women have beautiful and intriguing stories to their names, but it is difficult for the audience to establish a connection with them when so much time is spent on characters that play a small part in the storyline and are rather insignificant.
Another Word for Beauty does not have the most outstanding singing and dancing; however, this adds authenticity to the production. These women should not be fantastic in every aspect of their performances; after all, the prisoners they portray are not quite so talented. While beautiful and well-made, the gaudy and ornate costumes designed by Emily Rebholz take away from the legitimacy of this play. A prison beauty pageant set in Colombia likely does not have the necessary resources to put together something so extravagant.
All of the actors performed exceptionally, especially those who gave monologues. These monologues are the most heart-wrenching elements of Another Word for Beauty. They completely contrast the extravagance of the beauty pageant, replacing it with meaningful narratives of the difficulties faced by the female—and one male—inmates of El Buen Pastor. Stephanie Andrea Barron gives a standout performance as Yolanda, a grieving mother who gives up her three-year-old son so he may live outside the prison. Her pain is touching and the audience strongly empathizes with her, but as the play progresses her grief becomes a running joke and the audiences loses touch with the magnitude of this heart-wrenching physical manifestation of the unconditional love a mother has for her child. The use of humor to contrast Yolanda’s grief simply is not necessary. The wails of her son as the prison guards take him away add to the reality of the moment, but this too is contrasted by the use of a man to portray her son, Gregorio (Dan Domingues). However, a significant message underlies and justifies this comical representation of a toddler: in this moment, a child is forced to grow up much too soon.
Another Word for Beauty contains a series of opposites, most notably the beauty pageant taking place in a decrepit prison. This beauty pageant is an escape from the harsh lives led by the female inmates, yet it is also another method of objectification and can only make these women feel worse about themselves. However, it also brings the women together and creates a sense of community. This production is not meant to be complete and utter perfection; instead, it is an expression of life. It has its ups and downs and is filled with joy, sadness, heartache, pain, and a dash of comedy. Like Another Word for Beauty, life can be ugly and messy, but there is beauty within the chaos. The audience sees an unconventional type of beauty in the occupants of El Buen Pastor. They strive to rise above the horribly inhuman treatment they must endure as inmates, exhibiting beauty in their strength rather than through physical attributes.
Another Word for Beauty seeks to find an alternate definition for a misunderstood word used to degrade women who apparently do not meet standards set by society. Beauty, however, is a concept one must define by oneself. It cannot be confined to a few physical characteristics deemed appealing by those who possess them. Some succeed in unearthing their own definitions for beauty, finding this quality in themselves through “family, strength, memory, and justice,” but others remain steadfast in their belief that “there is no other word for beauty.”