José Rivera's new play goes inside a women's prison beauty pageant in Colombia.
If it was fiction, the premise would seem impossibly contrived: a women's prison holding an annual beauty pageant? But not only do Buen Pastor Prison and its pageant really exist in Bogotá, Colombia, but José Rivera's new play is influenced by interviews with actual inmate-contestants. In the documentary-esque style of director Steve Cosson's company The Civilians, which co-commissioned Another Word for Beauty with the Goodman Theatre, Rivera and Cosson's company visited Buen Pastor to observe the pageant and the women.
That's not to say Beauty is verbatim theater. Rivera's tendency toward poetics and theatrical flourishes rings through loud and clear in the play. An older prisoner, Ciliana (Socorro Santiago), serves as our narrator and guide. "Everyone calls me 'The Mermaid,'" says the woman, who's well aware she's in a play. "I have no idea why." Other women step away from naturalistic scenes to tell us their stories in spotlit monologues, and Cosson's staging is replete with musical interludes penned by Grammy winner Héctor Buitrago.
The result is a veritable roller coaster ride. The episodic first act depicts the women's preparations for the pageant, with a contestant nominated from each patio, or cell block. Rivera does a lovely job of humanizing the contestants, creating intriguing relationships such as the friendship between a former militant leftist and a right-wing paramilitary assassin.
Many of the supporting characters, though, are lightly sketched, and the tone lurches abruptly between broad comedy and deadly seriousness. It sometimes gets confused between the two, as when one woman's fresh sorrow at being separated from her child is played as a running joke. These switches are even more jarring in the second act, which alternates between a slapstick depiction of the pageant itself, dominated by the hosting duties of a cheesy telenovela actor, and flashbacks to the turning points that led the contestants to the prison. The play has its moments of real beauty, but as a whole, it's hard to find the right word.
Goodman Theatre. By José Rivera. Directed by Steve Cosson. With Stephanie Andrea Barron, Helen Cespedes, Monique Gabriela Curnen, Dan Domingues, Danaya Esperanza, Zoë Sophia Garcia, Marisol Miranda, Yunuen Pardo, Socorro Santiago, Heather Velazquez, Carmen Zilles. Running time: 2hrs 45mins; one intermission.