Written by Lucas Ho, FRAGO is a work that has taken many shapes over 17 months and 13 drafts. Finally, it has made its stage debut at the Drama Centre Black Box with a cast of 11. About going through reservist over the years, the play gives a glimpse of how military training affects our perception of adulthood and serves a question of what it means to serve the nation – even when distractions from the civilian life interferes every quiet moment.
Starting with an installation of army uniforms and boots in the middle of the foyer, the performance starts as the door to the theatre opens. Actors (or are they already their characters in civilian clothing?) coming out to dress and inevitably showcasing their various personalities – meticulous, careless, etc. However, it is a pity that audience members may choose to miss this entire sequence to get the “better” seats in the house.
Greeted by a tableau and an almost bare stage, with the set only consisting of a demarcated space and scenes of jungle and tanks hanging from above, there is absolutely nothing to distract you from the text and the acting. All focus was thrown onto the army uniform clad ensemble and surtitles playing whenever mandarin was the spoken language.
The breaking and fluidity of performance space is one aspect that particularly excited us. By holding performances outside of the regular expectation of where a stage is, and being in the space of non-performers, it pushes boundaries in a subtle way: so are the audience a role in the performance, and that we are as involved as the ensemble themselves?
That ambiguity placed us in a space of introspection, especially after the performance, and with a topic such as National Service and reservist, I do think it is something worth mulling over for a while longer.
The other curious element was the complete lack of props. The ensemble has developed a set of uniform gestures with precision to mean certain things, such as looking at a phone and carrying their field packs. The precision and uniformity was nice to watch and made all the transitions on stage clean and efficient. Though sometimes, it felt like there was too much space on stage that was left unoccupied and the actors had to work doubly hard to fill the gaps.
Consisting of Adib Kosnan, Alfred Loh, Ali Anwar, Cerys Ong, Chong Woon Yong, Derrick Tay, Jo Tan, Stanley Seah, Tan Sieow Ping, Timothy Nga and Zaaki Nasir, the ensemble cast took turns to cast the light on various instances of what the body can be doing and where the mind is wandering. Together, they worked well and knew exactly what each scene entailed – doing what they had to to push the action forward. However, the use of Mandarin and English felt too proper and not colloquial enough, and that threw us off occasionally.
We were surprised but the characters most memorable had smaller moments, though a bigger impact. Stanley as 3SG (NS) Albert Lee and Adib as LTA (NS) Lawrence Tan shared great sense of timing and captured the nuances of their characters very well. Jo as well as Timothy played Mrs and Mr Teo for comic relief at the best possible moment of the play. Their sense of humour and ability to just let loose in those characters gave the audience a breath of fresh air too, which was much appreciated when the play weighs so heavy most of the time.
The general rhythm felt very consistent throughout the play, and that placed audience members in a sort of discomfort because we never know what would actually happen next. However, we understood that the particular rhythm used was an artistic choice and was an embodiment of the atmosphere of how military life can be. The content of the text pulled through as well, and had complete clarity.
FRAGO is a show that you would watch to find out more about how it really is like in a reservist camp on training – the atmosphere, possible topics of conversations, the various questionable relationships between soldiers and officers. It offers a glimpse of the closest experience you might get of that sort of life, especially if you are a woman or not a local. Though this show may not be for those who look out more for entertainment and spectacular visuals, it offers you a part of life that is difficult to access but good to know about.
Pro-tip: come down early, get a programme and educate yourself with the kind glossary given on all the army lingo. You can thank us later.
Originally written for Popspoken.