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Unvarnished portrait of National Service
ONE would be hard-pressed to find a new realist play this year that takes as much risk as Checkpoint Theatre's FRAGO. Written by Lucas Ho and directed by Huzir Sulaiman, FRAGO centres on a group of National Service (NS) reservists who have been called up to do their periodic in-camp training (ICT), this time at Lim Chu Kang.
Though they come from all walks of life, they have a few things in common - all are on the cusp of turning 30, and none take their training too seriously. ICT in this armoured infantry battalion is seen as a kind of temporary exile from real life. Outside the training grounds, their wives and girlfriends, newborn babies, bosses and jobs, and a whole gamut of other responsibilities await.
For the most part, the men find themselves sitting on the ground and doing very little while they wait for the next "fragmentary order" (or "frago") to come. There's no shock and awe, no fired shots - only a humdrum marking of time. But these long lulls become a chance for the men to talk heart to heart, exchange notes on women and marriage, trade vulgarities and, in some cases, give themselves space for a mini-existential meltdown.
The large cast of 11 characters range from ordinary NSmen to senior officers. And they're played by a mix of seasoned actors (such as Timothy Nga, Adib Kosnan and Jo Tan) and newcomers (such as Stanley Seah, Tan Sieow Ping and Zaaki Nasir).
Although all the characters were written as Chinese by Ho, director Huzir opted for colour-blind casting, selecting actors regardless of their ethnicity. And, as it turns out, colour matters so much less than the talent and experience of the actors.
Ho's dialogue is so deliberately mundane and unadorned, it requires much skill on the actors' part to tease out the subtle nuances and ironies. The more experienced actors do this expertly: when Nga gently overplays the self-assured Lieutenant Colonel Bobby Wong, it tips into smart comedy and elicits laughs. When Jo Tan as Warrant Officer Winnie Low briefly hints at the army's discrimination against female and non-Chinese soldiers, she betrays a lifetime of disappointments. Some of the less-experienced actors excel when bantering about women, but fall flat when discussing, say, the trials of fatherhood.
All in all, though, FRAGO still manages to achieve a new kind of NS play - a cool, existential and inescapably real depiction of the army experience. Huzir underscores the dislocation further by punctuating the play with surreal tableaux set against Aaron Yap's spare set design, Shah Tahir's sound design and lighting by Andy Lim of ARTFACTORY.
Unlike the other art events marking this year's golden jubilee of NS (such as Michael Chiang's Army Daze 2 and Singapore Art Society's art exhibition), Huzir and Ho are less interested in celebrating the NS experience as a masculine rite-of-passage than showing the unvarnished truth of what really happens in ICT.
FRAGO is plain, honest, gently humorous and sporadically dull. It's possibly the most realistic portrait of the NS experience to ever take to the stage.
- FRAGO plays at the Drama Centre Black Box from July 13 to 23. Standard tickets at S$45 from Sistic