Three Women of Swatow by Chloé Hung

Tarragon Theatre Extraspace

Tarragon Theatre Extraspace

Joe Szekeres


These ‘Three Women’ offer surprise, suspense, and blood…oh, so much blood!

I don’t believe I’m giving away any plot spoilers here for the world premiere of Chloé Hung’s ‘Three Women of Swatow’. Tarragon Theatre’s press releases speak about the oodles of blood so at least these trigger warnings have been made explicitly for future audiences.

Tarragon describes ‘Women’ as a ferocious comedy, and yes there are moments where I found myself laughing and smiling at some heinous events when I know in reality this is nothing to laugh about when we realize what’s going on in the plot. It dawned on me halfway through this 80-minute riveting production where I bring some personal context as well, and it’s here where there may be a spoiler: I live in the Durham Region where the Adam Strong case shocked the city in which I live. If you are going to attend ‘Three Women of Swatow’ and don’t know about this local case, I would strongly recommend not to read about it until you have seen the play.

A ferocious comedy is a good way at least to begin the conversation about ‘Women’. I’m going to go one step further and say the play’s moments of comic savagery and darkness may be troubling to some, but as Artistic Director Mike Payette and Managing Director Andrea Vagianos state in the programme: “How we have all been craving humour in the dark moments of the last two years.” Yes, indeed, we need to laugh sometimes even in the most bizarre of circumstances.

It is for this reason ‘Three Women of Swatow’ becomes highly watchable, and I would recommend audiences to see it.

This three-member tight ensemble cast offers viciously delicious performances. As the Grandmother and butcher, Carolyn Fe becomes enigmatically confrontational as the story progresses where we learn more about what her life was like as a young girl in Swatow, China compared to the unique circumstances in which she now finds herself with Daughter and Granddaughter. Many lines from Fe are beautifully used either as a nasty zinger or a double-edged commentary on the role of Swatow women. One occurred where Fe orders the other two to clean something up.

Chantria Trim is the vegetarian Daughter whose troubled marriage became shocking for me to see at her first appearance and noticing the dark bruises around her neck. Trim’s periodic humming of the song ‘A Whole New World’ became only the first indication where she bravely tackles the Daughter’s fears in cornering her marital issues without resorting to any sort of over the top or hysterical spousal reactions, or so we are made to believe. Although we never meet the Daughter’s husband, I don’t believe Hung’s script suffers from this absence as Director Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster’s vision finely and subtly made me want to watch how these Swatow women genuinely interact with each other and watch them remain fierce.

Periodically throughout the performance, the women become involved in showcasing their movement using tai chi. I find tai chi fascinating to watch, but I don’t know a great deal about potential health benefits so I had to do a quick bit of online research about this activity. Briefly (and according to the Mayo Clinic): “tai chi is a gentle way to fight stress…to reduce anxiety…and to increase flexibility and balance.”

Well, I’m glad I have this brief definition because playwright Hung smartly and uniquely juxtaposes (for both comic and horrific effect) the benefits of what tai chi is supposed to do with the body versus what is actually going on in the story involving the women’s bodies. And it is this careful placing of reality and fear side by side which both heightens and becomes a clever underlying thread as the play continues, especially in watching how the Grandmother and Mother deal with the present situation in which they find themselves.

Diana Luong’s notably grounded performance of character development as the Daughter/Granddaughter really made me pay close attention to her. Loved every moment Luong appeared on stage and I completely bought her arc of genuine character emotions throughout. All I’m going to say about the conclusion of the play with Luong leading the striking tableau and Trim and Fe following still remained frighteningly real within my mind even as I write this article now.

That final tableau – Wow!!!!!! It must be seen to be experienced within what has just transpired.

Jareth Li’s claustrophobic set and confining lighting design splendidly amped up that stifling feeling of the restrictive confines of the house and the environment in which the women live. At one point, College Street and Italian restaurants are mentioned so I am assuming the play takes place in the downtown Toronto areas. Downstage is the set of the Grandmother’s house. There are large trellises constructed of various shapes stages left and right. There is a table centre stage with what appears to be a plastic tablecloth from where I sat. A cordless telephone is found on the table with an open Bible from which the Grandmother reads at the top of the show about the place of women in marriage. Upstage right is a refrigerator with a magnetic calendar attached plus other ‘frig paraphernalia attached. Stages right and left are are kitschy looking cupboards.

Behind this downstage set I can see remnants of a bathroom sink upstage right, and what looks like to be the top of a toilet. Upstage left I can see another kitchen sink with some kitchen drawers. This supposed set is dimly lit. This upstage set lit in darkness becomes Mother’s house later.

Shannon Lea Doyle’s costume designs are effectively earth tone for the Grandmother and Mother. The Daughter’s clothes are bright to reflect her youthful contrast to her two elders, but minute additions add further to her character arc. Deanna H. Choi’s sound design kept my auditory experience keenly aware at all times.

FINAL COMMENTS: A sometimes disturbing, but comical look at events from women’s perspectives and how they might like to deal with what needs to be done versus what we think how it normally should be done.

This ‘Three Women of Swatow’ is sharp, scrappy, inhumane, feisty and wild. It also made for some good theatre to see but be warned there are triggers.

Running time: approximately 80 minutes with no intermission.

Performance runs to May 15, 2022 at Tarragon Theatre, Extraspace. For tickets and other information, go to www.tarragontheatre.com or call 416-531-1827. The theatre is located at 30 Bridgman Avenue, Toronto.
Digital Tarragon run of Three Women of Swatow will be May 15 – 25.

THREE WOMEN OF SWATOW by Chloé Hung
Directed by Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster
Set and lighting designed by Jareth Li
Costumes designed by Shannon Lea Doyle
Composition and sound designed by Deanna H. Choi

Cast: Carolyn Fe, Diana Luong, Chantria Tram

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