"I'm going to get dressed," Diana E.H. Shortes announces at the beginning of The Baroness Undressed, her one-woman show about Micaela Pontalba, which recently ran at the Shadowbox.
She begins with an elaborate costume change in a fast and hilarious number accompanied by an uptempo Bach concerto. The effort leaves her huffing and puffing, and the pantomime of pantaloons to corset to hoop skirt shows the great distance in time and custom that separate us from our aristocratic predecessors. You can see why the wealthy women of the past had servants to help them get into these outfits, which seem as cumbersome as body armor.
The Baroness, who was sort of an ancien regime feminist, lived a life of high drama. Shortes, in her original script, recounts Pontalba's saga and conveys in a physical way the stresses on the determined heroine.
Born in New Orleans in 1795, the Baroness was christened Micaela Almonester — the first name suggesting the Archangel Michael, who cast Satan into Hell. The Almonesters were wealthy New Orleanians, and her father was instrumental in the construction of the St. Louis Cathedral. At the tender age of 14, Micaela was married to the scion of the Pontalba family, who were French aristocrats. The newlyweds crossed the Atlantic to live on the Pontalba estate outside of Paris.
Things did not go well. Was the problem that her father-in-law was a mentally unbalanced misogynist? Or was it simply a question of greed? Probably both. The father-in-law thought Micaela's dowry was insufficient — she had been left in control of half of her own money and possessions. He locked her up, tormented her and finally shot her several times with his dueling pistols. Some of her fingers were blown off and three bullets lodged in her chest. Then he killed himself, and Micaela was left for dead.
Amazingly, Micaela survived, and she returns to New Orleans.
Shortes plays this real-life melodrama in a wrenching symbolic fashion, pulling a blood-red silk kerchief from the site of one of her wounds, amid considerable writhing.
The play ends on a quiet note, with the Baroness warning that what one reads and hears about her are likely to be lies. Shortes' performance is gripping, and although the woman she animates was extravagant, Shortes seems comfortable with the lavish trappings. Veronica Russell created the appealing 19th-century costume, as well as the props and setting. This is a thrilling miniature drama, and Shortes says she hopes to find a director to help her develop it. It certainly deserves a wider audience. — DALT WONK