Café by Joel Tan: Dark Brews And Darker Realities

As poet Cesar A. Cruz famously said, art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. And Café by Joel Tan, specially commissioned for The Twenty Something Theatre Festival, dealt with several uncomfortable realities.

The two headlining shows – the other being Irfan Kasban’s Trees, A Crowd – are part of Tan Kheng Hua’s initiative to showcase the talents of the young twenty somethings she has been working with.

The play begins in an all too familiar setting: a hipster-ish café whose specialty is chicken and waffles.

The two worlds of the café – the interaction between the wait staff (Ellison Tan, Erwin Shah Ismail and Joshua Lim), and the catching up of the two long time friends (Jasmine Xie and Zee Wong) – are humorously joined when Zee Wong’s character bleats out an impassioned “Excuse me!” to the wait staff who respond with barely concealed irritation and a “Hi, yep?”.

At this point, the play sounds eerily like any café you’ve stepped into where the wait staff and a catty customer are having a showdown. However, unlike your typical café experience, something terrible is happening outside the café as the sound by Ryann Othniel Seng and the lighting by Petrina Dawn Tan suggest an intense storm.

The people inside the café though, at least in the beginning, have little or no care about it. Every time the lights go off and come back on, more soil appears on the café floor, and equipment from the barista counter also go missing.

Add dwindling supplies and a missing chef into the equation, and Ismail’s character’s front of laidback ease turns to pleas to stay: “We can go… after the shift.” His overly eager management of the café belies the reality of the world being laid to waste right outside the walls.

baristas joel tan
I’d trust them with my coffee

A biting commentary of the self-absorbed nature of society, the banal conversation of the two office workers about everything from secondary school scandals to holiday plans stands in stark contrast not only to the disaster outside, but also the completely different chaos of the lower classes represented by those serving them.

In an especially poignant scene, Joshua Lim’s character, who is an ex-convict, attempts to sell key chains to the two ladies, and points out how willing they are to pay $6 for coffee but not to help him. Wong’s character brusquely refuses to help him but demands that he refill her water, leaving the viewer wincing in discomfort.

Café by Joel Tan also addresses the feeling of dissatisfaction prevalent in youth caught up in the paper chase or the climb to financial stability and material wealth with echoes to T. S. Eliot: “Do you ever get that feeling…  That we’re just measuring time in coffee cups. Standing around waiting to be useful to someone else.”

Meanwhile the more cliché utterances – “There is a game. Play it. If there is a ladder, climb it.” – are yelled as Wong’s character breaks down and reveals her deep loneliness, still trying to prove herself better than the ex-convict serving her. Even though following the rules of normalcy is making her as miserable as the rest of them, the play does an excellent job of showing her obstinacy to move past them.

While Café by Joel Tan raised many questions and discussed a broad range of issues of living in modern Singapore, there were moments of laughter and knowing smirks as you recognise scenes in everyday life played out against the backdrop of a terrible reality outside while some characters desperately try to ignore them. After all, there’s nothing like impending doom to make things funnier.

Tickets for Café by Joel Tan are sold out. However, if you are still keen to watch the last show tonight at 8pm, you can join the waiting list. More information here.

Photo credits: Cafe by Joel Tan Facebook Page

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