Wednesday, February 03, 2016

'Another Word for Beauty' is Fleeting in the Eye of This Beholder -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Another Word for Beauty
a World Premiere play with music
by José Rivera
Music by Héctor Buitrago 
Directed by Steve Cosson
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru February 21

Seemingly attributed to William Cowper in the 18th century, "Variety is the spice is life," may well be the axiom/cliché I find most germane to my existence.

As the range of posts on should attest, I enjoy a variety of music, movies, TV, books, art and a vast array of live events, including rock concerts, musicals, plays, operas, ballets, jazz, blues, comedy, sports and more.

Even just in the realm of theater, the shows I see cut a wide swath and expose me to a variety of subjects, styles, thoughts and themes.

Over the three nights of this past weekend, I saw a drama about a mother's intolerance toward her gay son, even as he was dying (Mothers & Sons), a dramedy revolving around Muslims, refugees and the concept of arranged marriage (Yasmina's Necklace) and the subject of this review, Another Word for Beauty, a play with music--but probably not enough to be termed a musical--about a beauty pageant within a Colombian women's prison.

The first two, at Northlight Theatre and the 16th Street Theater, respectively, could be described as relatively small, simple plays. What happens is primarily conversational, taking place in one or two rooms, with no notable changes in scenery or costumes.

Under the direction of Steve Cosson, artistic director of New York theater company, The Civilians, with whom the Goodman co-commissioned writer José Rivera--an Oscar nominee for The Motorcycle Diaries movie--Another Word for Beauty is a rather vast production.

Nearly 3 hours in length, the show features a full band in an orchestra pit, a solid handful of songs sung live--which could technically qualify it as a musical though it doesn't seem to be marketed as such--movable sets including the depiction of a multi-level cell block and vibrant costumes with Latin flair in service to an Act II beauty pageant that is only a Steve Harvey faux pas short of network television production values.

In terms of presenting me with something a bit different, Another Word for Beauty certainly fit the bill, and with several genuinely attractive Latino ladies--this isn't a physically ecumenical "internal beauty" pageant, as I was prone to imagine--for reasons both substantive and superficial, in large part it was rather "agradable."

Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune seemed to like this show a bit more than I, and it's not hard to imagine others will as well.

That is the beauty of theater.

And variety.

But not only did I considerably prefer the emotional richness and resonance of the two plays I saw on preceding nights, my familiarity with a range of entertainment vehicles served to undermine the uniqueness of several of Another Word for Beauty's better aspects.

Although an unabashed admirer of attractive women simply on a superficial level, I've never cared much for or about beauty pageants.

I'd rather notice a nice looking woman on a subway train than watch a gaggle of professionally-pageanted "gals" compete in some insipid televised contest.

But even in terms of beauty pageants in unsuspecting places, perhaps bringing unexpected partnership and pride, Another Word for Beauty made me think of the U2 song, "Miss Sarajevo," which--along with a documentary of the same name, produced by Bono--chronicles a makeshift beauty pageant held amid war torn Sarajevo, Bosnia in the early 1990s.

This doesn't negate the actual, annual Buen Pastor prison beauty pageant that Rivera and Cosson heavily researched in Colombia making for an interesting theatrical piece, but while pleasant enough to watch--if simply for Emily Rebholz' costume design--the gallantry of the pageant that comprises Act II of the play was reminiscent of folkloric extravaganzas I've seen in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico and, frankly, is quite impaired by the inclusion of a sexist, crude and vapid male guest host, parody or not.

The best parts of Another Word for Beauty, at least where not merely my eyeballs were concerned, came as the contestants and other inmates individually told their backstories.

Moving, troubling and poignant, these recollections covered ground one might expect--childhood, sexual assaults, drug trafficking, pregnancies--but also included a number of intriguing surprises, including a social protester remorseful over a political attack gone horribly wrong.

Yet vignettes such as these, which add much humanity to "criminals" many never give much thought to, are also my favorite aspect of the Netflix hit drama, Orange is the New Black, which is about life in a women's prison. 

Even theatrically, the women--and Danaya Esperanza, Stephanie Andrea Barron, Helen Cespedes, Carmen Zilles, Zoe Sophia Garcia, Yunuen Pardo and Monique Curnen all do nice work here, with Socorro Santiago particularly good as something of a den mother--singularly baring their souls onstage couldn't help but draw allusions to A Chorus Line.

All these comparisons wouldn't matter if what I beheld seemed special enough to render me truly dazzled, enlightened and enriched.

And there's enough of each--plus some fine songs by Grammy winner Héctor Buitrago, sung in Spanish with projected supertitles--to make for a somewhat alluring evening of theater.

But at the end of the night, the unique but not all that distinctive Another Word for Beauty was mostly passing--without enough to make me look, or think, twice.

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