Bikini contests, talent portions and women parading around a stage in high heels are anticipated aspects of any national / international / Donald Trump-funded pageant — but not in a female prison in Colombia, in a country where civil war has raged for decades and drugs are a prominent resource. The largest female prison of Colombia stands in Bogotá and harbors political rivals, murderers, drug dealers and every criminal in between. But despite the tensions in and outside the prison, every year the inmates participate in a full-fledged beauty pageant.
Based on true events, Goodman Theatre (170 N. Dearborn Ave.) has taken on the stories of some of these women, producing the world premiere of Another Word for Beauty. Complete with makeup, hairspray and catfights, Goodman’s newest production is an emotional rollercoaster that has a few misses in terms of acting and storyline, but nonetheless sheds light on harrowing stories and topics from an undermined third-world country.
The play begins with an older woman nicknamed “The Mermaid” (Socorro Santiago) standing in front of two large prison doors, telling the audience she’s been in the prison for a long time — long enough to witness 15 consecutive years of beauty pageants. As the prison doors open, The Mermaid introduces the prison and its inmates, who are readying themselves for the big day.
As the women dance around to an introductory song and dance number, the stage comes to life with an intricately designed set. With two tiers and wise usage of space, the set almost seems like a dollhouse the audience was invited into — except that dollhouse is a prison. Clotheslines dangle from the walls and cheap bunk beds are shoved in the corners. Immediately, the audience is thrown into a cluttered reality, but the stage still allows plenty of room for the actresses to move comfortably.
Even though the play is set in Colombia, the dialogue is in English. The few song numbers, however, are sung in Spanish. To give the audience a context for what’s being sung, a projector shows the translated words on the back wall. But the words aren’t easily seen (I didn’t even notice the projection until the second song). With an audience that mostly hails from the 60-and-over crowd, it can be assumed they had the same issue with finding and keeping track of the projected words. The projected words also take away from the lively performances from the actresses, as it was difficult to watch the actors and read the projector at the same time.
The first half of the play flips between scenes of pageant preparation and monologues from inmates about their backstories. Giving the audience an understanding of these women’s lives before prison brings light to the underlying circumstances in Colombia: war and drugs. However, the problems and civil disputes in Colombia stem back several decades. Trying to wrap a large amount of political history into one play is difficult, and unfortunately Another Word for Beauty missed the mark.
The Mermaid gives a brief synopsis of the political system and guerilla warfare, but her 30-second explanation left me with more questions than answers. Since several of the inmates were in prison due to war crimes and backward politics, their backstories were hard to follow and fully understand. Two inmates, Nora (Zoe Sophia Garcia) and Isabel (Carmen Zilles) were previously on opposite sides of the war before they entered prison. As they talked about their previous differences, I found it difficult to keep up with who was fighting for what.
Although the first act was a bit slow with the attempts to fill in background details of the pageant, the women and the political system, the second act took on a life of its own.
With multi-colored lights projecting around the theater, audience members were thrown into the pageant, feeling as if we were other prisoners in the yard. With more color, humor, dancing and elaborate costumes than the first act, the second act embodied a fun and authentic Colombian pageant, but the underlying meaning and circumstances were not lost.
During the interview portion of the pageant, one of the contestants, Xiomara (Helen Cespedes), is asked what she would ask God if she ever met him. She responds with a long rant about her distaste for the prison and how she would ask God to set her free by absolving her sins. And if God didn’t absolve sins, then, like prison, “hell would be a pretty crowded place.”
In terms of performances, the acting felt a bit cheesy (but what beauty pageant isn’t cheesy?). It can be difficult to strike a balance between humor and drama, especially when the storyline is so powerful. Some of the actresses missed the balance and the dialogue came across as overacting. But recognition is due for Heather Velazquez, who plays a couple of minor characters, one of whom gives a humorous yet gripping monologue of her life on the streets and addiction to crack.
Dan Domingues is another actor (the only primary male actor) who stood out with his multiple roles: a vibrant pageant host, a transvestite, a child molester and a three-year-old. But it wasn’t just the costume changes that turned him into these completely different characters. Domingues flipped from each character seamlessly and brought each one to life in a new way.
Another Word for Beauty had some kinks. With so much research and time going into the production, I appreciate the dedication of everyone who put such an elaborate production together. A cast of almost all-female Latinas is a rarity in American theater, and the story is one that needs to be told. If the play is ever produced again, I fully believe some alterations could be made to make this a four-star performance. But for now, you may want to brush up on your Colombian history before buying tickets.
Another Word for Beauty runs through Feb. 21 at Goodman Theatre (170 N. Dearborn Ave.). Tickets are $20 to $50 and can be purchased at goodmantheatre.org. Wednesday, Feb. 3 is Goodman’s College Night, when college students with a valid ID can purchase $10 tickets and meet some of the artists from the production.