Chicago Theatre Review
The Mermaid’s Song
Another Word for Beauty – Goodman Theatre
Sequestered away from their homes and their families, the incarcerated ladies of Columbia’s El Buen Pastor women’s prison live an interminable existence, lives that are barely more than survival. The only break in an otherwise depressed, bland, hopeless life is the annual Fall beauty pageant that will earn one woman the coveted title of Senorita Simpatia. Understandably, this event occurs during the Fall Feast of the Virgin of Mercy. During that week the curious incongruity of glamorous gowns, sweeping feathered headdresses, colorful music and disciplined choreography dominates the interest of the prisoners, establishing a far different tone during this once-a-year distraction from the inmates’ tortured lives.
In this world premiere, Academy Award nominee Jose Rivera (“The Motorcycle Diaries”) has written a strangely structured play that combines interviews by real-life Columbian inmates with the music of Grammy-winning artist, Hector Buitrago. Directed by Steve Cosson of New York’s theater company, The Civilians, this new play sheds some light on the depraved endurance of these incarcerated women while showing how one simple act of care and humanity can momentarily elevate these ladies from their depressed state of being.
Within this very long play (over two-and-a-half hours, including too much repetition) we meet several main characters and learn their shameful backstories. More often than not, these ladies were the victims of an uncaring society and had been abused and neglected. Left on their own, these women learned to survive any way they could. A couple were revolutionaries on different political sides. One was raped and had her child while in prison, only to have her boy brutally torn from her arms when he was just three years old. One girl’s crime was simply trying to better herself intellectually, much to the disapproval of her family. Several women were victims of repeated violence and sexual abuse. Prostitution, theft, lying, defying the government and living outside the letter of the law were the only ways these young women could survive. Under different circumstances, these same young women might’ve been young professionals or coeds from a top university; but their lives didn’t encourage this kind of existence. As a result, they live in shame and squalor behind bars.
The story is narrated by the most interesting character, a 60-year-old woman named Ciliana, whose entire life has been within the walls of this prison. She’s called, “Mermaid” by the other women, although she never understands the reason. Ciliana’s story is shared through a few flashbacks but it’s her involvement in the present that makes her most fascinating. Socorro Santiago plays this feisty earth mother with a bundle of dignity and strength.
Most of the other characters, the younger women, are interchangeable. They’re more like archetypes than unique, individual characters. This is mostly a problem with the script, as it now plays. Certainly Stephanie Andrea Barron (as Yolanda), Helen Cespedes (as Xiomara) and Zoe Sophia Garcia (as Nora) are all marvelous actresses and their talents are considerable; however, their backstories tend to chop up the play while blending together and seeming to be the same. Danaya Esperanza, as the more cerebral, high heel-challenged Luzmery, and Carmen Zilles, as the blonde revolutionary beauty Isabelle stand out significantly from their peers.
The statuesque Yunuen Pardo is both multitalented, sensual and childlike as former beauty queen, Jeimi. As the inmate who’s been placed in charge of instructing this year’s contestants, Ms. Pardo shows patience and care; but as the co-emcee of the actual pageant, this actress truly dazzles as she attempts to keep everything flowing on an even keel. Dan Domingues dazzles by doing quadruple duty, playing the little three-year-old son of one inmate, the gay brother of another, assorted male guards and a Paramilitary officer. But where Mr. Domingues leaves his mark is as Danny, a hunky, smarmy soap opera star hired to co-emcee with Jeimi. As the two attempt to follow a script, obviously written by the lovely Monique Curnen, as the newly elected Warden Magnolia, all kinds of problems occur. It’s in this, the play’s second act, that’s the most entertaining as it both comments on the incongruity of holding such a contest in a prison while offering an excellent parody of beauty pageants the world over.
Steve Cosson might want to take another look at the construction of this piece and work through some of the problems of length and redundancy with Mr. Rivera. This play with music has the potential of becoming a powerful and unique theatrical piece. As it now plays, there’s far too much repetition and not enough individuality. The live music is a plus, as is Andrew Boyce’s massive set, enhanced by both Mike Tutaj’s beautiful projections and Robert Wierzel’s expressive lighting. Emily Rebholz’s authentic costuming gives this play the feel of a documentary and the choreography by Maija Garcia is vibrant and exciting. Spending an evening in the wise company of Ms. Santiago’s maternally nurturing Mermaid is probably the best reason for seeing this play.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 16-February 21 by the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 312-443-3800 or by going to www.GoodmanTheatre.org/Beauty.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com