Dan Domingues (Danny/Maurico/Arturo), Danaya Esperanza (Luzmery), Zoë Sophia Garcia (Nora), Carmen Zilles (Isabelle), Stephanie Andrea Barron (Yolanda), and Helen Cespedes (Xiomara) in José Rivera's Another Word for Beauty, directed by Steve Cosson, at the Goodman Theatre.
Dan Domingues (Danny/Maurico/Arturo), Danaya Esperanza (Luzmery), Zoë Sophia Garcia (Nora), Carmen Zilles (Isabelle), Stephanie Andrea Barron (Yolanda), and Helen Cespedes (Xiomara) in José Rivera's Another Word for Beauty, directed by Steve Cosson, at the Goodman Theatre.
(© Liz Lauren)

Goodman Theatre's first show of 2016 is the world premiere of the play Another Word for Beauty, by Obie Award winner and Academy Award nominee José Rivera. Developed with provocative theater company the Civilians, and roughly based on true events, Another Word for Beauty walks the line between pageantry and gritty realism with mixed results.

Every year, in Bogotá, Colombia, the inmates of El Buen Pastor women's prison compete in a full-scale beauty pageant, complete with sparkling gowns and feather headdresses. Another Word for Beauty dramatizes this annual event, showing prostitutes, petty thieves, and war criminals facing political rivalry and deplorable living conditions in the hopes of being crowned this year's "Señorita Simpatía." Though the play is quick to mention that winning the pageant won't land the winner fame, fortune, or even one day outside of prison walls, each woman has something intangible to gain from winning the sash and gown. The action is presented in a series of vignettes narrated by Ciliana (Soccoro Santiago), an all-seeing, wisecracking inmate of 40 years and counting, who believes that she has the power to predict each pageant's winner. She promises the audience a chance to see inside minds and souls, as she lays bare the vulnerability, guilt, and fury simmering inside of the women of El Buen Pastor.

An ensemble of 11, primarily Latina women plays a broad variety of characters. Standouts in this cast include Yunuen Pardo who radiates charm as last year's Señorita Simpatía, the self-described "Super Princess" Jeimi. Danaya Esperanza is a vocal powerhouse as Luzmery, a hesitant contestant who finds her strength. Soccoro Santiago is relegated to delivering sometimes-clunky exposition throughout the first act, but finds her comedic footing during the pageant itself. Dan Domingues plays a variety of men who interact with the women of Buen Pastor in the present as well as in flashbacks, standing out as a sleazy soap star and a menacing stranger, but stumbling as a distraught 3-year-old in one of the first act's weaker moments.

Grammy Award winner Héctor Buitrago, famed frontman of Colombian rock band Aterciopelados, has created an original score in Spanish. Buitrago's work is paired with that of choreographer Maija Garcia, who merges traditional Colombian dancing, reggaetón, and contemporary choreography to produce a vibrant atmosphere. Director Steve Cosson refuses to romanticize the inmates, carefully presenting flashbacks and breakdowns that could have otherwise easily turned maudlin. One imagines that costumer Emily Rebholz had a wonderful time designing authentic 2-foot-tall feather headdresses, glitzy gowns, and sparkly bikinis, which provide a fine contrast to Act 1's faded prison hand-me-downs. Andrew Boyce's sets, Robert Wierzel's lighting, and Mike Tutaj's projections interplay well, transitioning between prison, pageant, and flashback ably.

As it weaves decades of political strife with intra-prison conflicts, unrelenting personal tragedy and even typical pre-pageant snafus (missing makeup, dangerous high heels!), the play struggles to find its shape, never entirely gelling beyond a well-staged collection of vignettes and occasional songs. José Rivera's poetic text takes us inside the minds of woman after woman, contrasting their regrets and fears with the pleasant facade of a Colombian beauty pageant, but never quite spends enough time with any one of them to thoroughly connect.

Another Word for Beauty comes to a very abrupt end. Perhaps it is a deliberate choice that the show does not offer a satisfying conclusion, reinforcing the idea that the pageant offers no lasting changes for the women who participate in it. Nonetheless, the gifted cast could have benefited from more breathing room to inhabit this well-constructed world.