Today’s special: a review of “Café Sarajevo”

There is a real sense of intimacy that is conjured from podcasts. When I listen to a podcast on my morning commute, the lone speaker’s voice in my ear in a crowded MRT carriage makes me feel connected with another human being (hello, Michael Barbaro.) This is what Café Sarajevo effectively evokes – not just visually, as “ON AIR” in red capital letters are displayed behind cast members Mariel Marshall, Peter Musante, Lucy Simic and Stephen O’Connell. But also aurally – as every audience member dons headsets, the performance begins with Marshall’s gentle singing voice. Her song lulls us in, the audience is listening. Café Sarajevo begins. 

After the 2017 Women’s March, Simic is inspired to visit her father’s homeland Bosnia, accompanied by her partner O’Connell. Sarajevo is the capital of a fractured nation that Simic continually struggles to identify with. It is an emotional journey of self-discovery as Simic learns the cruelty of war and the tragic hypocrisy of wartime tourism.

Toronto company bluemouth inc. handles these somber topics aptly, with the help of creative technologist Jacob Niedzwiecki. Audience members share cardboard goggles displaying 360-degree video. These low-fi VR goggles show scenes of Simic and O’Connell’s journey of Southeastern Europe. The panoramic views of the Bosnian country sides, mosques, homes and small alleyways complement their monologues. The interjection of technology and the liveness of theatre is highly engaging.

For an immersive theatre experience, Café Sarajevo makes audience interaction look well, fun. Apart from recruiting audience members to recite lines, early on in Café Sarajevo, the performers roped in four volunteers to play a blindfolded game. The game serves as an icebreaker, though it ventures into the bizarre: Musante divides the crowd into two teams – Team Chomsky and Team Foucault – to cheer on the two pairs, while the 1971 Chomsky-Foucault debate plays on a big screen. Both the blindfold game or the two teams are never brought up again, so it quickly dissipates.

Perhaps Café Sarajevo does allude to some Foucauldian discourse. Simic feels like an outsider when speaking a language she knows, in a country where her family is from. She recalls ordering coffee at a cafe in Sarajevo and expresses regret in mistaking Bosnian coffee for Turkish. She admits to feeling the waiter judging her, all while Marshall serves hot coffee from a copper-plated cezve to some audience members. Language holds power, and like borders, it can divide and unite us.

There is a lot going on in Café Sarajevo. From VR goggles to musical cues, the performance meshes tremendous sorrow with upbeat good-natured moments. This heightened experience makes Café Sarajevo, at times, difficult to decipher. Undoubtedly, the maximalist approach propels all senses into overdrive. There are evocative visuals ranging from Croatian karaoke and fireworks to victims of genocide and a lone sniper.

The scent of Bosnian coffee lingers in the air.

This review is based on the performance on 11 January 2020. Café Sarajevo ran from 8 to 12 January 2020 at Esplanade Theatre Studio.

Photos courtesy of M1 Fringe. Photo credit: Crispian Chan.

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