Before seeing ”Another Word for Beauty,” at Goodman Theatre now through Feb. 21, 2016, you should know that Columbia’s El Buen Pastor prison for women in Bogata does exist. And as unlikely as it may seem, the prison’s beauty pageant, portrayed by playwright José Rivera in the show, actually is an annual event.
What you see in the Goodman production, a world premiere, is an excellent set design of the prison with its nine blocks. And what you hear from narrator, longtime prison inmate “The Mermaid,” well played by Socorro Santiago, is a running description of the prison, the pageant and its inmates who are there for everything from drugs and murder to petty crimes.
You also find out that in spite of conditions being bad and the blocks being overcrowded, the beauty pageant is held by the prison as a form of rehabilitation to make its inmates feel good about themselves and develop some sense of pride.
Indeed, in the show and at the actual prison, the women in each block strive to help their representative to the pageant with how to present oneself and with the outfits needed for the extravagant bathing suit part, the traditional Latin dress contest section and evening gown parade.
The problem with the show is not the concept. It is that the stories are presented about the women in each block in a way that seems more representational of society’s ills than heartbreaking and personal.
The other problem is length. The play appropriately fits Goodman’s annual showcasing of Latino writers and programs, but Rivera, an Academy Award nominee for his “The Motorcycle Diaries,” may have tried to incorporate too much storytelling.
Yes, the people involved in the show had interviewed some of El Buen’s inmates to learn their history and problems. But after just half of the first act had gone by, the audience got it. They understood the women’s background.
The first act seemed to drag but might have had more impact if the stories were shorter, and told in song with fewer spoken lines.
Rivera’s “Another Word for Beauty” should be seen and discussed but it’s not yet a production that easily fits a rating system.
“Another Word for Beauty” is at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, IL 60601, now through Feb. 21, 2016. For tickets and more information call 847-443-3811 and visit Goodman.