A Night at the Tombs
Written by Bianca Leigh
Directed by Tim Cusack
I first saw Bianca Leigh as Livia in Theatre Askew’s production of I Claudius, a role she played with steely grace and a sense of elegance and queenly hauteur that can’t be faked. Leigh was not born a biological woman; as a working transsexual actress, she has played several parts for Askew, and she has also worked for Taylor Mac, taking a key role in his theatrical epic The Lily’s Revenge (Mac has said that he considers Leigh a muse). And now, also for Theatre Askew, Leigh performs a one-woman musical show, A Night at the Tombs (through August 5), which details a run-in with the law in 1987 when she was arrested for prostitution. Leigh has a kittenish side that sometimes evokes a late-70s Valerie Perrine, but always, too, she has a sort of dignity, and a kind of aloof quality that doesn’t give you easy access to her emotions. She only alludes to her childhood, and when she briefly does impressions of her parents, you get the feeling that she’s treating them with kid gloves. Most of the show revolves around her night spent in jail, but that too feels cursory, a smallish anecdote that has lost some juice in the re-telling. When Leigh says that something died in her when she encountered police corruption, you wonder how on earth she could have remained so innocent, especially since she’s just been telling us about her stint at Show World and her adventures as a dominatrix; she’s from New Jersey, for heaven’s sake! We’re led to expect some kind of dark night of the soul, but all we hear about is a mildly unpleasant experience that doesn’t seem to have defined her in any way, let alone marked her.
The most interesting part of A Night at the Tombs, and the section that begs for a bit more embellishment, is Leigh’s description of working as a dominatrix, especially the part where she tells us about role-playing being in love with a disfigured man and staring into his eyes, and almost believing what she was doing. Leigh is funniest, and most honest, when she messes up a line and works the crowd, or in an acid little aside; when she told us about a man and woman openly screwing in the jail cell over a toilet, Leigh pretended to be the woman for a moment, then noticed her own awkward stance and cracked, “You can tell I haven’t been fucked in a long time, right?” before going back to her story. In most one-person shows, it seems like the person has revealed too much of themselves, and so you sometimes feel embarrassed for them. In Leigh’s case, her grand sort of distance as a performer, which was so helpful in playing Livia, gets in her way when she’s trying to level with us. She has a story to tell, but she needs to use a little more Elaine Stritch-style “let it all hang out” to tell it.
(photo credit: Max Ruby)