By Isaac Lim
(562 words, 6-minute read)
FRAGO by Checkpoint Theatre tracks a group of NSmen and Regulars, showing that the men, and woman, are all equally struggling with the system here in Singapore. Is that anything new?
Jo Tan is on stage, doing standard push-ups that put this reviewer to shame. Then sit-ups, change. Jumping jacks, change. Repeat. In SAF vest slack. For a good ten minutes. The other men in uniform stand around and simply look on. She is 1WO Low. She is doubly ‘the other’ here, the sole female, and an army regular.
Frago revolves around a group of NSmen in an armoured infantry unit. It is their seventh reservist. Another ATEC assessment. Snatches of conversations goes to show their unwillingness to be in camou-prints. Even more, how these trainings disrupt their lives. Away from their work duties, husband duties, father duties, they struggle with the most important duty bestowed unto them, protecting the nation.
The conversations appear mundane and banal. Yet it keeps the play going. Playwright Lucas Ho has an ear for such conversations. The armskote man complains to another specialist about the others in the platoon not signing out things properly. A platoon commander reminisces about the better times when he was serving his full-time NS with a Warrant Officer. Two NSmen sharing about their managing their time as fathers to their newborns.
Nothing significant happens in the play. Standing at 120-minutes long, it does wears the audience down a bit. There’s some NS operational commands and actions, a lot of disgruntled rants about the system and how one is unwilling to serve, and singing of army songs. Perhaps, through presenting reservist as it is, one can feel how painful it is.
The words are the focus here. There are no props involved, mostly mimed. This stylistic presentation, a developing signature of Checkpoint also seen in their other works like Normal and For Better or for Worse, works in most scenes. Clean movement and choreography brings across the intended actions of the characters and the ensemble.
However, there are times when the characters adopt hyper-realist movements that stood out for the wrong reason. LTC Wong (Timothy Nga) addresses his men, standing on two straight rows on either side of him, while he does an awkward 360 degree turn. This reviewer could not make out the reason for that action, nor contextualise it to the scene.
And despite its long running time, it is hard to get into the psyche of any of the characters. Strange moments such as one involving LTC Wong and 1WO Low discussing the unit’s performance after the assessment gave a sense that there was some unhappiness between the two in the past, but is never made known. Also, some characters speak intermittently in Mandarin, but how are they different from the English speaking-only characters, is not made known.
Certain actors stand out, breathing life into believable and relatable characters. Ali Anwar as the anything-goes 3SG (NS) Benedict Teo has an air of nonchalance and yet is a caring superior. Zaaki Nasir has that sense of anxiety and rash as the worried first-time father.
In a final scene, we hear local band .gif’s version of army tune Purple Light. A jazzed-up version of a local, perhaps crude song. Not much of a purpose. Just as Jo Tan takes to the stage again. Sit-ups. Push-ups. Jumping jacks. Repeat. Still finding purpose.
“Is reservist just a huge waste of time? Frago examines life after national service” by Teo Dawn (Popspoken)
“Review: FRAGO by Checkpoint Theatre” (bakchormeeboy)
“Cynical but honest look at reservist life” by Akshita Nanda (Straits Times)
Frago was written by Lucas Ho, directed by Huzir Sulaiman and presented by Checkpoint Theatre as part of the company’s 15th anniversary season. It ran from 13 to 23 July 2017 at the Drama Centre Black Box. This review is based on the performance on 15th July 2017, 8pm.
Isaac Lim is a full-time daydreamer and most-of-the-time writer. He holds an Honours degree in Theatre Studies from NUS, is a copywriter, playwright, theatregoer. He likes the word ‘and’ because it brings about many possibilities, and can be found on IG through #ZacGoesToTheTheatre.
This review is part of the Performance Criticism Mentorship Programme initiated by National Arts Council and organised by ArtsEquator. It is a six-month programme during which theatre critic and mentor Matthew Lyon guides mentees Isaac Lim and Patricia Tobin in reviewing one performance a month from July to December 2017.