Joel Tan’s purgatorial café gets a revival and feels more urgent than before in our very real crisis of 2020.
In a year where countless F&B outlets have shut down amidst the coronavirus crisis, and the very real sense of doom continues to hang over our heads as the future remains uncertain, Joel Tan’s play Café seems more relevant than ever, as it receive a revival as part of Wild Rice’s Director’s Residency programme.
Directed by Hazel Ho, Café homes in on the absurdity and shallow nature of the café hopping culture, twinned with the peak of social media obsession. Set in a nondescript café, we watch as former school friends Shireen and Jaeclyn (Elizabeth Loh and Seong Hui Xuan) catch up over coffee and aglio olio, reminiscing the ‘good old days’. Both dressed in pristine white, they strike a stark contrast to the café staff dressed in denim aprons, busying themselves behind the counter and dealing with their own problems. There’s manager and former army regular Zat (Adib Kosnan) who regales his staff with cloying optimism and theories on work ethic; ex-convict Kim (Darren Guo) who also hands out flyers to make ends meet; and finally, part-timer Eleanor (ants chua), who shows up late, steals wine, and spends her nights drinking at the bar next door.
As an absurd play, Café is a show where not much actually happens, but Joel Tan’s detail in his writing helps bring out the absurd with the dark humour of his caricature-like characters. With the stark difference in attire and how the café patrons and staff are seated onstage and milling around at ground level at work respectively, Café makes it clear that it concerns itself with class differences. The patrons are quickly dubbed ‘the bitches’ by the staff, with Seong Hui Xuan doing a fantastic job of playing the villainous Jaeclyn, completely self-absorbed and petty to a fault, along with her snooty attitude and demanding tone towards the staff. As Shireen, Elizabeth Loh is visibly uncomfortable, but strong-armed her into staying longer. There’s a distinct discomfort watching them onstage evokes, as we think about the hours we ourselves spend whiling away in cafés, discussing banal topics to no visible end, and wasting our lives with each hour drinking coffee.
While the patrons are entertaining enough to watch with their first world problems, Café’s main source of emotion lies in the blue collar staff with their own, more pressing issues. The staff’s banter reveals plenty of deeper issues than how many stars to leave for a review, from Eleanor’s crippling anxiety, to Kim’s desperation for money as he supports his family. Darren Guo plays Kim with gusto, and invites both pity and admiration for his burdens. As Zat, Adib Kosnan does well to act as the mediator between the group, always giving second chances and keeping the peace. Even if their backstories begin to verge on the melodramatic at times, there’s a believability to their performances and collegial chemistry they share that lets us feel for them, particularly in more light-hearted moments as they find small comfort in the little things.
Things get particularly exciting when patrons and staff clash, and their tensions boil over. Director Hazel does a very good job of keeping all these characters in check, ensuring that their energies are in line with each other’s to maintain just the right amount of tension to keep audiences hooked, and creating the sense of foreboding that something terrible is always around the corner. A stand out scene sees Kim attempting to sell his knick knacks to the patrons, making for awkward, uncomfortable comedy gold. It’s an image of purgatory itself, and so much of the play reminds us of Jean-Paul Sartre’s quote that hell is other people.
All of these conflicts are only heightened by the nightmarish nature of the world outside. The set is bare save for a table and two chairs for the patrons, and an actual, working coffee machine for the staff. As we hear a thunderstorm outside, the chef goes missing, and the lights flicker ominously, we can only imagine the worst is yet to come. In light of this, everything that happens within the café’s four walls feel like minuscule problems compared to whatever apocalypse is happening outside, and Eleanor and Shireen’s struggle to remember something important they need to attend to become proxies for our real life culture of turning to Instagram and cute food to forget our real problems.
When Café was first staged back in 2016, café hopping culture was at an all-time high, and it felt like it was criticising our willingness to turn a blind eye to more pressing issues in the world, choosing to instead to go gaga over latte art and eggs Benedicts. But with the ongoing pandemic and Hazel Ho’s direction, the script feels more urgent than ever as it draws attention to how so much of our 2020 has been spent finding ways to cope and distract ourselves from the real problem at hand, something not everyone has the luxury of doing. In intensifying the play’s tension, thanks to both the ominous design elements and the chemistry between the cast, Café magnifies the tunnel vision born from our self-obsessed nature, and reminds us that we could all stand to put the phone aside sometimes, and be more aware of the people and problems we’re surrounded by in society.
Café played from 3rd to 5th December 2020 at Wild Rice @ Funan.