Cafe

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Wrapped up this show a week ago. Lots of trepidation going in, lots of uncertainty going out. I went in thinking to try painting with a different palette, using some of the tools (naturalism, conversation, banality) I’m familiar with, and the end result was something that I find hideous and monstrous. Responses from audiences and reviewers have been very positive, though, for which I’m grateful, and it’s a +10 to trying out new things. Along similar lines, almost immediately after the last show, I went on a 4-day intensive apparel-making class, made lots of new friends and new garments: +10 to trying out new things. Turned 29 today, and I realise I am so afraid of doing new things. Funny how quickly we grow old.

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Anyway, this is my favourite production shot, by Crispian Chan. Amongst her very detailed directing work and sure-handed construction of this Cafe in the wilderness situation, Yingxuan has a really strong painterly eye, and achieved some very beautiful stage pictures on a mostly flat plane with very little action. 

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And here some reviews from the press:

Helmi Yusof, Business Times: “Slowly and subtly, the scares creep in. The terror builds up. When the finale arrives, it is unexpected, implosive and profound. What starts off as a mundane drama morphs into a horror story with a strong message- one that critiques the strictures of Singapore, its no-second chance systems, and the punitive ways people are labelled losers, rebels or deviants if they choose to live differently… Indeed, Café by Joel Tan was the crowning jewel of The Twenty-Something Theatre Festival 2016.”

Ng Yi-Sheng, The Online Citizen: “I’ve seen Tan do work like this before. Last year, his play Mosaic centred on four young people, sitting in an old playground till dawn, trying to protest its inevitable demolition. I was amazed by its ability to draw me in with its incredibly true-to-life dialogue—the Singlish here was instinctive, never comedic—in spite of its lack of action. It’s unlike anything I’ve witnessed in our theatre scene.”

And by reviewers on their blogs…

Corrie Tan, www.corrie-tan.com:  It’s a play where nothing seems to happen, but everything is happening. Joel has always had a fine ear for dialogue and his talky script serves him well here, gradually painting in a portrait of an all-too-familiar Singaporean inertia and passivity, where no one knows quite what they are doing but they go through the motions anyway. The world might be crumbling around us, he suggests, but still we cling to our own sanitised version of reality, inoculating ourselves with our cups of coffee laced with perfect swirls of latte art. Zee Wong’s passive-aggressive, queasily banal Jaeclyn (did I spell that right?) proves that our greatest enemy is in fact ourselves, and that our greatest weapon is our painful water cooler talk (literally – she tells her pained acquaintance Shireen how her co-workers come to drink at the water cooler on their level because it tastes better. God help us). It’s a scathing portrayal of how the well-meaning and well-intentioned, too, get worn down by an insidiously banal system. How can one rage against the machine when the machine is powered by a deep and all-powerful ennui?”

Adeline Chia, Facebook: “The play is set in a cafe that’s closer to a dimly lit, 11 Cloverfield-type bunker than 40 Hands. There are allusions to some funky apocalyptic business going on outside, but strangely, the people inside aren’t that bothered. Over the course of the play, some eventually want to leave, but they are persuaded or guilt-tripped to stay. The two customers are two female friends, long drifted apart, but meeting in one of those awful catch-up sessions where they realise they have nothing in common. The three waiters are, for various reasons and to varying degrees, locked into their jobs.

There are some problems with the execution of the play. I think it needs bolder, more decisive strokes in script and direction, a little less wittering. But its triumph, indubitably, is Zee Wong’s character: a passive aggressive, waiter-abusing, latte-art-photographing, borderline-sociopathic jerk so toxic and familiar that so many days after the fact the thought of her makes me break out in hives. She will go down as one of the best villains in Singapore theatre.”

Sadly few of the reviews mention the really strong work being done by all the actors: Erwin Shah Ismail and his ailing man-boy rendition of cafe manager Zat, Ellison Tan and her spiky schizoid depressive pixie Eleanor, Joshua Lim and his sweethearted Kim, a beng with an ocean of cares, Jasmine Xie and her long-suffering, terrified Shireen, and of course Zee Wong, whose demonic victim of upbringing Jaeclyn will long haunt my dreams and afternoon coffees eavesdropping on the table next to me.

Also, Ryann’s ambitious, cinematic sound design (DID YOU KNOW? He planted a button-operated sound-chip and speaker in the espresso machine so that the actors could simulate actually making coffee?), and Petrina Dawn Tan’s subtle but beautiful lighting (has the Goodman Arts Centre Blackbox often looked so magical? Also, working on basically only 1/3 of the light rig because, well, GAC).

Also? The fastidious, super-patient stage management team led by Geraldine Ang? And Mok Cui Yin’s production management and producing, which is probably how we got the word so far out there. Thanks all, if you’re reading, and congratulations.

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