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Too much is predictable in ‘Another Word for Beauty’

Driving home from the Goodman Theatre on Monday night — where “Another Word for Beauty,” Jose Rivera’s play about life in a high-security women’s prison in Bogota, Colombia, received its world premiere — I turned on the news and heard a BBC report bearing uncanny connections to what I had just seen on stage. It spoke of the possibility of a peace deal between the Colombian government and left-wing Farc guerrillas, an agreement that might lead to the end of a brutal, multifaceted conflict that has been raging since 1964, and has exacted a terrible price on the country.

No one would deny that Rivera’s play is a timely look at both Colombia and prison systems in general. Nor could they argue with the line spoken by an inmate of the infamous Buen Pastor Prison (the former convent that now houses thousands of women), which suggests the place is a microcosm of the country itself — a place where petty thieves, prostitutes, the victims of the narcotics trade, the rich and poor, the educated and illiterate, and the followers of both the Communist rebels and far-right factions are housed under a single roof, even if, for the most part, they are divided into different cell blocks.

 in the Goodman Theatre production of "Another Word for Beauty." (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Heather Velazquez (from left), Stephanie Andrea Barron and Socorro Santiago in the Goodman Theatre production of “Another Word for Beauty.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)

The one exception to this division occurs each September, as the women engage in a festival-like operation that culminates in a beauty pageant. And of course it is that event that is the focus of Rivera’s play. It gives him the opportunity to introduce us to a cross-section of the women, to have them explain why they have been incarcerated, and to provide them with a platform from which they can decry all the inhumanities they must endure, and also give voice to their personal and political views.

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‘ANOTHER WORD FOR BEAUTY’

Somewhat recommended

When: Through Feb. 21

Where: Goodman Theatre,

170 N. Dearborn

Tickets: $25 – $75

Info: (312) 443-3800;

www.Goodman

Theare.com

Run time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission

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To be sure, the idea behind this play — created by Rivera and by director Steve Cosson, head of the Civilians, a New York-based ensemble devoted to documentary-style research — has great potential. It also has a number of antecedents, including the haunting musical “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”

But for all the good intentions, and the alternately brash and poignant tales its predominantly female cast tells (along with spicy dance sequences choreographed by Maija Garcia, and songs by Hector Buitrago), the production is only fitfully entertaining. Far too long, and heavily repetitive, the play often feels like a laundry list of Colombia’s ills, with the characters more like familiar archetypes than fully formed people.

Serving as narrator throughout is Socorro Santiago, the oldest of the women — a sassy figure who goes by the name of Mermaid, and who, in many ways, has made the prison her home. It’s the crowded, unsanitary place where she is fed (if badly) and surrounded by the closest thing she will ever have to a family. And serving as mistress of ceremonies is Jeimi (Yunuen Pardo, a statuesque beauty who can dance up a storm). Jeimi has reigned as beauty queen for the past two years, but now it is time for her to be replaced. And the five main competitors are both determined and hesitant, with each supplying a representative back story.

Yolanda (Stephanie Andrea Barron) is the woman who must give up her beloved son (the women can keep their children with them until they turn 3), and she is saddled with an unfortunate scene in which that child is played by an adult. Xiomara (the delicate Helen Cespedes) is the sophisticated woman from a dysfunctional family who mourns for her gay brother, who was brutally murdered and now visits her as a ghost.

A scene from the Goodman Theatre production of "Another Word for Beauty." (Photo: Liz Lauren)

A scene from the Goodman Theatre production of “Another Word for Beauty.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Isabelle (Carmen Zilles) is the sexy, self-important blonde with special privileges because of her association with the right-wing military. Nora (the sensual, commanding Zoe Sophia Garcia) was involved with the leftists and is riddled with guilt over an operation that resulted in terrible collateral damage. Now contrite, she has become a fervent activist for the prisoners’ civil rights.

Finally there is Luzmery (endearing Danaya Esperanza), the shy, poetic, bookish soul who never found positive affirmation as a child. She also is the only dark-skinned girl — and the rare, subtle suggestion here is that racism is at work even in the confines of the prison.

The scenes that work best are in the second act, as each contestant must answer a question and use the opportunity to say what is really on her mind, despite the ban on political speech-making issued by the prison director, who has plenty of her own problems.

Andrew Boyce’s massive cement-walled set opens onto the women’s shabby dormitory rooms bedecked with laundry, and then becomes the outdoor patio where the pageant erupts in a blaze of color and, along with Emily Rebholz’s whimsical pageant costumes, quickly establishes the mood of Buen Pastor. In their own way, their designs are “another word for beauty,” too.