Stage Door Review

Three Women of Swatow

Friday, April 29, 2022

✭✭

by Chloé Hung, directed by Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster

Tarragon Theatre, Tarragon Theatre Extraspace, Toronto

April 27-May 20, 2022;

May 15-25, 2022 online

Grandmother: “I’m not in the mood for biblical homicide”

Three Women of Swatow by Chloé Hung was originally meant to have its world premiere in March 2020. As with so many plays the Covid-19 pandemic closed theatres in Ontario postponing the play’s world premiere. Now Three Women has finally opened and Hung appears to be in doubt about what the tone of the play is and what the play is about. The play is only 80 minutes long, but even so Hung seems to run out of material after 60 minutes and uses the last 20 simply to repeat arguments that the characters have already had.

Since it is never glossed in the play, Swatow was the English name for Shantou (汕頭), China, before the adoption of pinyin in 1979, rather as Peking was the English name for Beijing. The city is in about 300 km northeast of Hong Kong. The fact that Hung uses the older name is intriguing since only one of the three women in the play, the Grandmother (Carolyn Fe), was born there. The other two characters, the Mother (Chantria Tram) and the Daughter (Diana Luong), were born in Canada. It’s possible that Hung uses the older name to imply that the Mother and Daughter are also “women of Swatow” because of what they share with Grandmother.

The play opens on Grandmother sitting at a messy table getting drunk and reading Judges 4:12-21 in the Bible. This passage is about Jael, wife of Heber, who murders Sisera, an oppressor of the Israelites, by driving a tent peg through his skull.

Meanwhile, Grandmother listens to her voicemail and hears the distressed voice of her daughter (called Mother in the play) asking how long to marinate a chicken to make the dish “drunken chicken”. This is all rather strange. Since Mother is a vegetarian, why is she preparing such a dish?

It turns out that Grandmother knows very well what mother means. The main surprise of the play occurs only 20 minutes in so it requires no spoiler alert. The parts of Jareth Li’s set that had made Grandmother’s room look so cramped are pulled back and we see a view of the bathroom and the kitchen in Mother’s house. There is blood on the table and the refrigerator and a large pool of blood under the table. Mother is cowering while Grandmother wearing long heavy rubber gloves is stirring something in a blood-spattered bathtub. It doesn’t take us long to figure out that Mother has killed her husband, accidentally she says, and that Grandmother, who was skilled as a butcher, has come by to dismember and dissolve the body in acid.

This discovery is both gruesome and comic in its excess. Mother’s horror at what she has done is nicely balanced by Grandmother’s totally matter-of-fact attitude and praise for Mother for finally getting rid of her physically abusive husband. The comedy increases when Daughter arrives with dinner and Grandmother and Mother try to calm her down. Grandmother thinks Daughter will find it soothing to know that wives murdering husbands runs in the family. She murdered the husband of her arranged marriage back in China. Daughter is horrified, but gradually comes to accept Grandmother’s point of view.

If only Hung could have maintained this balance, Three Women might have been a fine black comedy along the lines of Eugène Ionesco’s Amédée (1954) or Joe Orton’s  Entertaining Mr. Sloane (1964) or his Loot (1966). Unfortunately, Hung also sees that spousal abuse is too important a topic to treat lightly. She therefore treats Mother’s abuse at the hands of her husband seriously and Grandmother’s taking Daughter away from Mother to spare her her father’s abuse as equally serious. Hung’s attempt to meld the sociological with the comedic results in a major clash between the black comedic tone she had established and serious inquiries into why women stay in abusive relationships.

Hung has Grandmother say that she, not Mother will go to jail, but why she decides this or how this will be arranged is never mentioned. Mother thinks of people who might come looking for her dead husband, but that topic along with the fear of getting caught Hung quickly dismisses. Hung artificially focusses the play not on what consequences murdering a husband has in society at large but only on how such murders act as a legacy for the child of mariticidal mothers.

Grandmother says that “Swatow women are supposed to be fierce” and she is proud that Mother has finally found the courage to do what she ought to have done as soon as she found out she was pregnant with Daughter. Grandmother’s profound misandry is not shared by Mother or Daughter, but it is a value that Grandmother would like to instil in them.

Structurally, once Hung gives us the big reveal of what Mother has done, the action is essentially over. Hung tries to stretch it out by having Mother delude herself that she accidentally killed her husband, whereas Grandmother wants Mother to admit outright that she murdered him. Hung does not write Mother’s denial of intentional murder as comic nor does director Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster have it played so, even though the large amount of blood splashed over two rooms plus a partially dissolved body in the tub ought to make Mother’s denial seem absurd.

Hung intersperses the action with flashbacks to explain how Grandmother came to be as she is – her revulsion at an arranged marriage, her notion when Mother is pregnant that now is the time for Mother to kill her husband. If Hung were really aiming to write a black comedy the characters’ backgrounds would be irrelevant.

Also interspersed with these flashbacks are sequences where the three women perform tai chi together. The purpose of these sequences is confusing since the guiding principle of tai chi is not to use force against force but rather softness to defeat hardness. Practitioners are meant to show wude (武德) or mercy to one’s opponents. Hung’s entire emphasis on the fierceness of Swatow women would seem to contradict the philosophy behind tai chi.

As it is, Three Women is satisfying neither as a black comedy nor as a discussion starter about abusive relationships (contrary to what the Tarragon Resource Guide to the show emphasizes). The play does at least serve as a fine showcase for the acting skills of three Asian-Canadian actors. The action is so smoothly directed by Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster that many may not notice the strange bumps and omissions in the script simply because she has drawn such committed performances from the cast.

Chief among these is Carolyn Fe as Grandmother in a wildly entertaining performance. Mother may have committed the central crime in the story, but it is Grandmother’s attitude toward her actions and toward Daughter’s that hold the play together. Hung has given Grandmother an extraordinarily dry wit and a series of strong comeback lines that stop any argument from the two other women cold. Fe’s delivery of these lines is impeccable and she fully embodies the brutal, profoundly misandrist ethos that places Grandmother outside both conventional Christian or Chinese morality. Fe portrays Grandmother as a force against which neither Mother nor Daughter have a hope of resisting.

Because of this, both Mother and Daughter come off as immeasurable less interesting characters. Dramatically, this is a flaw since Grandmother never has anyone on stage to combat her on a equal footing. Surprisingly, the least developed character is Mother, about whom Hung tells us nothing except that her husband has given her bruises. Was there any psychological or sexual abuse? Hung doesn’t seem to think more information is important. This attitude means that we only see Chantria Tram’s Mother as cowering and helpless, although she somehow had the courage to kill her husband.

Although Hung’s flashback scenes are not necessary since everything they show is later discussed in the play, it is in these scenes where see Tram chillingly play Grandmother’s own mother and Mother at a happier, younger age, that we see that Tram has range as an actor beyond cringing and quivering.

Hung gives Daughter more to do and Diana Luong easily conveys Daughter’s varying moods from ordinary teenagerly irkedness with the nosiness of Grandmother to outright horror at the act Mother and Grandmother have committed. Luong is also excellent at giving Daughter’s range of moods including outrage a comic edge.

In the end Three Women of Swatow is a one-twist play that becomes repetitive once that one twist is revealed. Hung has, however, created an absolutely wonderful character in Grandmother and seeing Carolyn Fe bring this cynical, utterly ruthless woman to life is a real pleasure.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Diana Luong as Daughter, Carolyn Fe as Grandmother and Chantria Tram as Mother; Chantria Tram as Mother; Diana Luong as Daughter; Carolyn Fe as Grandmother. © 2022 Cylla von Tiedemann.

For tickets visit www.tarragontheatre.com.