In popular culture, the South American country of Columbia has long been associated with images of drug trafficking, beauty pageants and political strife. Its a one-dimensional trope that keeps haunting Columbia, especially with media spectacles like the recent Miss Universe debacle. Academy Award-nominated director Jose Rivera (Motorcycle Diaries) borrows from real life and manages to cram all of these elements into the multi-faceted musical Another Word For Beauty, playing at Goodman Theatre through February 21.
Although it sounds bizarre, beauty pageants are so much a part of the cultural fabric in Columbia that they are regularly held in prisons. Another Word For Beauty guides viewers into the crumbling walls of El Buen Pastor, the largest women's prison in Bogata, Columbia and the site of the annual Senorita Simpatia (or "Miss Congeniality") beauty contest in honor of the Virgin of Mercy.
The play opens with a raucous song, "Welcome To Prison" and music unfolds throughout the two and a half-hour production, sometimes to underscore emotions but mostly to entertain. The evocative songs are composed by Grammy Award winning musician Hector Buitrago of the seminal Colombian band Aterciopelados, and are performed effectively by some of the actors (in Spanish with English subtitles flashed on the cell block walls) and others, not so much. But overall, the dizzying production is a dancing, singing exploration of the harsh realities of life in prison.
The cast of women represent the social groups and issues reflected in Columbia prisons; serving as a mirror to the overall society. Rape victims, paramilitary fighters, drug mules and prostitutes all come together to compete for a prize that they hope will elevate their self worth. It's a heartbreaking play that struggles to lighten the dark subject matter with humor and slapstick but in the end, amid all the singing, dancing and pageantry, the reality of poverty and oppression is the lingering impression.
Tickets are available online, at the Box Office (170 N. Dearborn Street) and by phone 312.443.3800.
Another Word For Beauty is part of Chicago Theatre Week, taking place at theaters citywide from February 11-21.
Photos courtesy of Goodman Theatre