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The Baroness Rampant November 19, 2011

Posted by The Typist in History, New Orleans, Odd Words, Theater, Toulouse Street.
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How do you collapse the fantastic and tragic story of the Baroness Micaela Almonester de Pontalba into a one woman show of less than 30 minutes? Why, with a corset, of course.

For the first several minutes of The Baroness Undressed, after Diana E.H. Shortes’ entrance onto the Allways Lounge’s small stage we witness a silent and powerful physical performance of operatic violence, a marionette possessed, as she laces her corset and buttons her bodice with the tenacity of a lioness, twisting and bending and contorting her body with and her face with pain and frustration with every yank of the laces and every recalcitrant button wrestled into place she has assumed both the costume and the persona of her tortured aristocratic character. What is laid naked in this show is the interior of the Baroness’s character.

In this very short one-woman show Shortes gives us the essentials of the Baronesss’story. one
“no woman living today could understand”: a privileged Creole child named for St. Micheal the Archangeal “who cast Satan himself into hell”; a wealthy young “heiress from both ends” subjected to an arranged marriage to her cousin Xavier Celestin Delfau de Pontalba; how the Pontabalas took her away from New Orleans to a prison-like castle outside Parish; bitterly spits out that she “conceived six times” but does not otherwise mention her children; the attempts by her father-in-law to steal her fortune that ends with his attempt to murder her; how he failed and ultimately took his own life; how she ultimately returned to New Orleans and recovered her fortune, finally escapes from the clutches of the Pontablas.

Until the last minutes of the play, when she begins to unbind herself from her constrictive feminine costume and relates her ultimate triumph and monument–the buildings that still bear her name–she struggles through her corset to find the breath to tell her story. She collapses not only to the feinting couch that is the stage’s only dressing, but frequently onto the floor. Her attempts to speak with a masculine ferocity frustrated by the tightly laced female costume of that period which leaves her frequently a gasping heap, a perfect symbol for the societal strictures she struggles against. From the couch she rises wielding her fan, once again–if only for a moment–the charming Creole aristocrat. From the floor she struggles to her knees and to her feet like someone just shot, determined to catalog at any cost the injustice and injury she suffers.

In one of the shows most dramatic moments, as she describes the attempt on her life, she slowly pulls a long red scarf out of her bodice as if she were in fact bleeding out on the stage. Later, as she recounts the parallel troubles her native city suffered she brilliantly ruffles the same scarf over the floor as she describes the fires that twice destroyed the eighteenth century Vieux Carre. As toward the end she reverses the process of dressing and pulls off her dress gloves she prominently displays the left hand as if hooding a particularly striking ring up to the light, the fingers of the hand shattered by her in-laws bullet clad in a solitary black under glove.

Shortes uses her thin body, Veronica Russell’s costumes (the constraining corset, the perfect sense once dressed of an eighteenth century lady in a Franco-Spanish city, the darkly sexy garments underneath it all) and the consequences of those costumes to stunning physical effect, but it is ultimately her face flashing with lizard quickness from coquettish smile to contortions of pain and of rage that allow us into the soul of the Baroness.

As Shortes recounts her struggles not only with her powerful voice but with every thread of her costume and every muscle and sinew in her slim frame, she plays not for sympathy but for respect, decrying the patriarchal feudalism the Baroness struggles against. Shortes captures the emblematic Pontabla perfectly, becomes New Orleans’ anti-Joan of Arc who takes up her fan like her name saint’s sword and ultimately triumphs over every man and tragedy life places in her way, her monument the graceful apartments upon which her emblematic P is still emblazoned on every gallery in iron as hard as Shortes’ Baroness herself.


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