Archive Review: Bent to the Flame

From August 2007:

Doug Tompos is ridiculously talented (not to mention dashingly handsome). In Bent to the Flame the one-man show about Tennessee Williams which Tompos has written and continues to perform at the Fringe Festival, he does a totally convincing impersonation of Williams to words that are as entertaining as they are erudite.

In Flame the young Williams probes his own needs and neuroses, and, most importantly, his passionate love of Hart Crane’s poetry. It is a simultaneously witty and moving portrayal, offering a penetrating look into the deeply queer links between the two writers. At one point Tennessee says something along the lines of: “How can I explain what Hart’s poetry means to me without mentioning that he liked to pick up sailors on the waterfront – and so do I”?

In a brilliant conceit that allows Tennessee to talk directly to the audience while being devastatingly frank, we find the young playwright in his hotel room rehearsing what he is going to say at a lecture about Crane’s poetry that he has been invited to give. In such a context he dares to expose the real roots of his attraction to the flame of Hart’s subtly homoerotic poetry that draws him like a moth.

Through it all, Tompos does a dazzling job of capturing Williams’ matchless insights about art, perseverance and the struggle to remain compassionate through the test of instant success. The play finds Williams in the midst of his first major creative breakdown, just as The Glass Menagerie is becoming the runaway hit of 1945.

Ultimately, through his contemplation of Crane’s poems he finds the courage to continue work on Blanche’s Chair a theatrical sketch that would eventually become A Streetcar Named Desire.

While Flame is the single best thing I’ve seen at the Fringe this year, it’s not without a few flaws. While Tompos has captured the exact cadence of Williams’ speech, he more than once sacrifices comprehensibility to more accurately capture Tennessee’s accent. Given that this piece is all about the emotional and expressive power of American English, he should perhaps be occasionally a little less “Suhthuhn” and a little more enunciated.

Also, Tompos occasionally glosses through his readings of Crane’s poetry, only allowing the audience to get what Crane is driving at through Williams’ analysis. A little more devotion to performing every single syllable of Crane for all it’s worth might illuminate Tennessee’s obsession all the more clearly. That said, this is head and shoulders above most of what you’ll see at the Fringe

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