Café by Joel Tan [17/6/16]
We’re back at the Twenty-Something Theatre Festival for its second week, and we heard that tickets are almost completely sold out for all four productions! It’s a very exciting weekend, and we can’t wait to share the good theatre with you guys.
This week, we’re starting off once again with the Headliner of the week, penned by Joel Tan, whose previous works include Mosaic and Family Outing.
It was drizzling this evening before we entered the theatre, and put a bit of a dampener and added a little darkness to the atmosphere. Little did we expect that Café had that exact dreary feel to it. Set in a nondescript hipster café sheltered from the thunderstorm outside, two old school friends turned office workers meet up. Jaq (Zee Wong) can’t stop talking and pulls stories out of her head like rabbits from a hat, while Shireen (Jasmine Xie) is easygoing and puts up with Jaq’s tales of pregnant friends and Japanese bentoboxes from Takashimaya. Meanwhile, the café staff behave like a dysfunctional family, consisting of lonely manager Zed (Erwin Shah Ismail), who owns a motorbike and three cats, ex-con Kim (Joshua Lim), who sells keychains on the side to make ends meet, and finally university student Elle (Ellison Tan), who treats her anxiety with alcohol and drugs, making her a less than desirable employee.
Nothing much actually happens in Café, and Joel Tan’s script reads like an overheard conversation, snatches of wit and idiosyncrasies one hears in passing in actual cafés or when conversing with friends. This only adds to its brilliance, and there is a sharpness to his observational wit that reveals the humour and absurdity of our everyday interactions, helped by the fact that he isn’t afraid to hurl obscenities and local lexicon around onstage. Each character is relatable in their own way, and whether we like it or not, we are all guilty of some of their actions.
For example, Jaq is a disgruntled patron who believes wholly in that the customer is always right, leaving bad reviews on HungryGoWhere and changing her mind whilst in the midst of ordering. Despite being the easiest character to villainize, too often we find ourselves in similar positions, becoming more and more demanding when we apply our own individual standards to that of others, and forget to be polite. Wong plays this role with aplomb, displaying all the characteristics of a person who has it all financially, but is completely socially inept. Shireen meanwhile displays the polar opposite of that attitude, choosing to go with the flow and not complaining when there is a need to, easily taken in by sob stories and popular belief, like coming to the café because of a review she reads on a popular food blog.
The concerns of the two contrast sharply with the café employees, who are doing their darndest to keep things together, even as the storm blows in dirt (which actually looked like coffee grounds) into the café, physically embodying the chaos within and without the café. As the situation grows more and more dire, from not being able to produce the special due to a lack of both chicken and waffles, to a complete meltdown from both Kim and Elle, partially from the influence of weed, we realize how inconsequential Jaq and Shireen’s first world problems seem in comparison to the café staffs’, giving the audience some food for thought on what, or who lies on the other side of the bar counter.
At one point, I almost thought that the café was a metaphorical form of purgatory, much like Sartre’s Huis Clos, particularly after the head chef conveniently disappears without a trace and how the characters comment that they can never tell the time or how long has passed. Not to mention, the rain is seemingly endless, and the lack of reception and WiFi utterly bafffling (and should rightfully be complained about in a review). But Tan never reveals the truth behind the sinister café, preferring instead to leave it shrouded in darkness and allowing the audience to decide for themselves just what is going on outside of those four walls. Tan is surprisingly adept at the art of writing the absurd, and I would love to see him continue developing this style in future productions. There is some brilliant direction at work here, from how Kim’s mop breaks immediately after he schools Elle on her awful mopping skills, and the way the waitstaffs’ almost circular motions going around create the notion of pointless repetition, exemplified in Elle’s outburst about counting time in cups of coffee.
Café begins innocently enough as an easy play to watch, the arc of conversation comfortably familiar, yet defies conventional understanding by weaving in some pertinent questions about meritocracy, graciousness and class issues, all framed by the mysterious setting, which leaves the audience quite discomfited and uneasy. By the end of the play, I had laughed a fair bit, and yet, still had not quite grasped the full meaning behind Café. Perhaps the next time we decide to head out for brunch, it would do us good to think a little bit more about the waitstaff behind the counter, which far too often, we take for granted, and whose faces disappear into a haze of strangers we pass by each day.
Stay tuned for our upcoming reviews of the Fresh Plays tomorrow, when we’ll do another marathon of all three new plays: Curry Puff, Balek Kampung and Tuition.