‘Flame Broiled. or the ugly play’ delivers purposeful discomfort at world premiere
This is fine” reads the cover of the playbill, alluding to the well-known cartoon of a dog saying those same words while sitting calmly in a burning room. Things are, of course, not fine and neither is the content of this new play at Boulder’s Local Theatre Company. But that’s the point.
Flame Broiled. or the ugly play shines a light on the worst aspects of society — racism, homophobia, sexual assault to name a few — and turns them up a notch (hence, the flame broiler). It all serves to highlight this ugliness for what it is while also realizing its absurdity. Fast paced, relentless, and often uncomfortable, Flame Broiled. is a wild ride. In the words of the show’s own introductory warning, “buckle up.”
If you’re looking for a linear plot, this show isn’t for you. Zigzagging between 15 vignettes, Rodney Hicks, playwright and director, centers Flame Broiled. on snapshots of life: We see a fiery exchange between a black customer (Ilasiea Gray) and a white cashier (Emma Messenger) at Burger King; a gay couple (Gary Norman and Saxton Jay Walker) grappling with the fear of taking their relationship public in 2019; a drugging at a college party and the subsequent rape trial; and much more.
While the show tackles prejudice in many forms, the most intense moments of Flame Broiled. come where racism is involved. We watch a modern-day interracial family confront their very existence as they learn about Emmett Till’s murder and graphic photos flash on the wall behind them. Later, we witness two 1950s-era children say an emotional and confused goodbye — they are no longer allowed to play together because one is black and the other is white.
The cutting nature of these scenes finds some relief in the moments of humor sprinkled throughout, though at times it feels wrong to laugh. And that’s Hicks’s goal — to not only make you uncomfortable with the content of Flame Broiled., but with the way it makes you feel.
Though we might expect a large cast with the show’s dynamic nature, Flame Broiled. comes to life with only four actors, two black and two white. In a breathless 80 minutes, these actors play more than 30 characters and despite the rapid changes between vignettes, they don’t miss a beat.
Gray, Messenger, Norman, and Walker all deliver solid performances while undergoing small costume changes and even helping with set adjustments. Messenger stands out in particular for her expert use of facial expressions to augment each character she embodies. Norman too exerts artistic control in the way he cultivates the humorous moments of certain scenes while remaining perfectly serious. Together, these four make a strong team as each scene and character change fails to draw unwanted attention; instead you wonder what shocking episode is coming next.
The set itself is its own work of art, so intricate that one might miss small but pertinent details if several minutes aren’t spent studying the walls around you. Scenic designer Nate Bertone and street artist Slime Kid work together to fully utilize the walls of the small Carsen Theater at the Dairy Arts Center, turning them into graffiti-laden canvases full of quotes, images of Martin Luther King Jr., Harvey Milk, and Gandhi, and pictures that embody the play’s diverse themes. This elaborate set design mirrors the complexity of the play and needs time to digest; if you go, I suggest getting there early to take it in.
What the set and the content of Flame Broiled. have in common is that they are jam-packed. With only 80 minutes to absorb everything happening on and around the stage, it’s easy to feel lost or overwhelmed. This whirlwind seems entirely intentional, though the impact of the play might suffer from the show’s own relentless intensity.
What’s certain is that this show isn’t meant for a laid-back Saturday night and the need to “buckle up” is not an understatement.
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Photos by Michael Ensminger