Entering the Goodman Theatre’s production of “Another Word for Beauty”, purposefully knowing nothing, it seemed impossible for playwright José Rivera’s newest work to disappoint. But, where there’s a will, there’s a way, and this play certainly had a Will, and a Yolanda and a Xiomara and countless other characters and themes that were impossible to keep straight.
The show, directed by Steve Cosson, was incredibly ambitious, brimming with potential and wonderful ideas from self-worth and love, to violence and justice. However, the production was reminiscent of a waiter with plates of delicious food stacked, precariously, unnecessarily high on his arms,yet takes one step forward, and sends all the plates crashing to the ground. Rivera simply bit off more than he could chew on this one.
“Another Word for Beauty” is set in Buen Pastor Women’s Prison in Bogotá, Columbia, the “home of the most beautiful people on earth”. The play’s narrator (Socorro Santiago), a lovable, charismatic, older woman called the Mermaid, invites the audience into the lives and stories of the girls in the prison’s various “patios” or sections. Through a series of monologues and scenes circling around the prison beauty pageant, the audience hears the stories of how the girls ended up where/who they are.
Just the structure of the play alone solicited confusion. It felt like three different shows with different plots and themes forced into one. The first act, the preparation of the five competitors for the pageant, is punctuated with amazing, emotional life stories from other women who never return to the plotline. Amazing and moving as the monologues were, with everything else that was going on in this show, they weren’t necessary. These additional characters simply caused intermission to be spent desperately trying to figure out which girl was which.
There were a few other elements that just felt unnatural, the biggest of which was the awkward band of about ten, playing compositions by famous musician Héctor Buitrago. Although the latin instrumentals were sometimes nice in the background to set a certain mood, occasionally the girls would break into song on top of them. While it was appreciated when it was realistic, like when the girls were rehearsing for the pageant, in every other circumstance it just took away from what could have been potent, emotional moments. The tragic tearing of sweet Yolanda (Stephanie Andrea Barron) from her son, and the fragile moment timid Xiomara (Helen Cespedes) shares with her dead brother are ruined by a sudden, unimpressive, entirely unnecessary song.
Even the show’s attempt at a big flashy opening number was a miss; the girls danced and sang excitedly in a way that completely strayed from the serious themes at the show’s core. The flashy beginning completely misleads the audience, and they are nastily shocked as the show progresses. While this show does have musical potential, Rivera would have to fully commit to the idea, instead of a few awkward melodies. Also, the songs would need to be made, well, simply better.
While the music may have removed the audience from the story, the set and costumes worked hard to bring them back. The show begins and ends with a blank prison wall in front of a colorful array of women’s clothing, reflecting the theme of preserving beauty and individuality. The inside of the prison is similar; run down and plain enough to keep the setting realistic, but splattered with colorful blankets and curtains and the like.
The girls wore plain street clothes in the first act, not uniforms (thankfully so, they would have been indistinguishable otherwise). However, the second act pageant-ware was fantastic. A flood of color and light illuminated fantastic feathered head dresses and sequined gowns when the curtain rose again. Another way the audience was immersed in the world of the play was when the girls spoke Spanish. This was one of the few things in the show that felt completely natural and honest.
Despite having success with the setting, the show still ended on a sour note. After the development and exploration of the lives of the five pageant competitors, the audience feels connected to them. These girls have been through hell and back, having dealt with abuse, violence, neglect, war and nearly every other imaginable horror. Finally, in cumulation of all this pain and growth, it is time to pick the winner of the pageant. With no clear winner yet, the girls are asked one final question; “What is another word for beauty?”
Here it is- the title of the play. This must be the moment that connects everything that has been shoved at the audience for the past two hours. The music swells. One by one the girls choose words that represent their struggles. “Family.” “Justice.” “Memory.” “Strength”. Finally, the underdog of the story, Luzmery (Danaya Esperanza), steps forward and says, “There is no other word for beauty”. And with that, Luzmery is crowned Queen, prison life recommences, and the audience is left with the thoroughly annoying need to figure out, “What the hell does that mean?”. That moment felt so important, so pivotal, that it should define the show. And it didn’t- like much of the rest of the show, it failed to make any sense.
Overall, the show was enjoyable. There were touching moments, funny moments, inspiring moments. But all together, it was not a success. There were too many things that just did not work. However, they say it is our flaws that make us beautiful. By that logic, “Another Word for Beauty” is the definition of beauty itself.