If someone asked me for another word for beauty, I would say enchantment. However, if someone asked me for another word for the Goodman Theatre’s production of Another Word for Beauty, I would have to say ordeal.
Now don’t get me wrong, the show was not entirely horrible. It had strong roots in an issue that provides ample material for a masterpiece: women’s rights. Specifically Latina rights in Colombian prison. However, any sort of message that they were trying to convey was dulled by clumsy prose and poor characterization. Since it was written by Jose Rivera, who is the recipient of two Obie awards and has had his works produced globally, my expectations were high, but I was sorely let down.
The story began with a lady nicknamed “The Mermaid” announcing, “I am the narrator.” This simple statement sends all kinds of red flags. For the first half of the show, it is hard to tell if the Mermaid is eccentric or Santiago is a bad actress. It is later revealed she has a developmental disability, but that still does not keep me from wondering about the latter. Slightly stiff arm movements and slightly monotone vocal patterns do not make an onstage character disabled. While these are the symptoms of real people with disabilities, onstage it is important to make sure characterization is magnified enough for it to be understood by the audience.
Soon the focus shifts to follow five girls on their journeys to prison and their attempts to win a beauty pageant. The show centers on five girls: Xiomara (Helen Cespedes), Yolanda (Stephanie Andrea Barron), Isabelle (Carmen Zilles), Nora (Zoë Sophia Garcia), and Luzmery (Danaya Esperanza). Each girl was jailed for a different reason. Another Word for Beauty attempts to capture the severity of each one: the effects of being involved with the ex-militaries, forced prostitution, rape. Every one of these issues is important and needs a platform, but when five unique stories and five unique problems- not to mention the weighty problems countless secondary and tertiary characters carry with them- into two and a half hours, elements like plot and character development are sacrificed. The show would have been much more effective if it had instead chosen to focus on one or two girls instead of fifteen characters. Consequently, when the beauty queen is crowned, I, along with a good portion of the audience, feels close to nothing. The show is pulled in almost every direction, and as a result, the characters remain static; they are the same person they were when the curtain goes down as they were when the curtain went up at the beginning of this ordeal.
Take for example the host of the pageant, Jeimi (Yun Padro). At the start of the show, she was a consoling friend, caring leader, and former pageant queen. However, when she becomes the host, all this characterization falls away for the sake of some very mediocre jokes. In between the rushed presentation of each of the beauty contestants, she drops stiff one-liners that attempt in vain to coax a laugh from the audience. She is joined by her co-host (Dan Domingues), a star of a popular soap opera. While Rivera did not try to give this character a tragic backstory like every other character in the show, he did not give him any substance either. He too existed only for laughs. While his oversexualized movements and innuendos managed to glean many laughs from the audience, after a while it became hard to discern if they were out of amusement or discomfort. This, along with the rushed and repetitive pageant, caused the second act to nearly fall flat. Its only saving grace was design.
The set, costumes, and lighting are the only things of beauty. The set was designed by Andrew Boyce who created a prison that reflects the natures of the women inside it. Although some women may deserve to be there, many of them were wrongly convicted or jailed for simply speaking their mind. As a result, the prison walks a line between cinderblock and home. As odd as that seems, it fits perfectly with the show and adds a nuance to the characters which was not provided by the writing. The costumes are the only interesting thing about the pageant. Intricately detailed, each pageant outfit is unique and wonderful and basked in the perfect glow of light (Robert Wierzel).
As if the show was not busy enough between captivating design and confusing plot, musical numbers were randomly dispensed throughout the show. They were poorly written, sung, and choreographed. The Latina casting is wonderful, but it shouldn’t be that hard to find actors who can sing. What was supposed to be a pleasant compliment to the rest of the show became an interruption. The songs lacked the usual upbeat spirit of Latin music, and were completely out of range for the women’s subpar voices. Most of the songs were accompanied by simple, clumsy, repetitive choreography which distracted the audience from what the songs could have been possibly trying to convey. Everything was sung in Spanish, and English translations were projected above the stage. As an English speaker, it is hard for me to tell if the song lyrics were poorly translated or they weren’t written well in the first place. Either way, they were irrelevant, confusing and contributed absolutely nothing to the show.
For a show that supposed to be centered on beauty, it is very surprising none of it was dedicated towards body positivity and self-esteem. Body positivity is a new way of labeling the acceptance of all body types and realization that everyone is beautiful. The lack of this is a major issue that is magnified in pageants, and a large part of the problems that surround feminism. Women are viewed as shallow, insecure, and image-obsessed, and Columbia is certainly not progressive in its views or treatment of women- or at least not in rural areas.
Overcoming the stigmas against women and the expectation that they are supposed to be beautiful and physically flawless shells is a key part of bringing about the equality that was so desperately desired by the women in the prison. The all too common objectification and disrespect of women are the roots of problems like rape and prostitution that this production is attempting to call attention to. However, nothing is said in acknowledgement of this. The closest thing to body positivity one girl telling another that she has nothing to be insecure about because she is “hot”, and there is only one woman in the entire show who looks to be over a size six. Rivera may have blatantly ignored these issues for the sake of focusing on other sides of rape and prostitution, but by doing so he failed to acknowledge the main motivations of such crimes. He allowed them to be pinned on the men of Colombian society, but that is where it stopped. He did not delve further into the motivations behind them, nor did he offer a solution or any hope of resolution; Rivera simply showed us there was a problem.
Although this show took a huge step towards equality onstage by having an entirely Latin American cast, it was hampered by the music and absence of plot and character development. This show should not be given a clear path to success just because it is racially diverse or talks about important problems with society like rape and prostitution. For these issues to be given the much needed attention and effective advocates they deserve, they need to be accompanied by quality writing, directing, and storytelling- all of which this show desperately lacked.