Tarragon Theatre/Three Women of Swatow, written by Chloé Hung, directed by Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Tarragon Extraspace, Apr. 19 to May 15. Tickets available here.
Three Women of Swatow is a dark satire about a dark subject. Truth be told, although it did hold my attention, mainly through performance, I really didn’t find anything particularly fresh about it, or particularly funny.
The three women are a Chinese family comprising Grandmother (Carolyn Fe), Mother (Chantria Tram) and Daughter (Diana Luong). This is not giving anything away because you learn these facts early in the production, but the two older women have had the bad luck to marry abusive men, whether in an arranged marriage (Grandmother) or a love match (Mother). They both solve the problem by murder. The play, after all, does advertise that there will be lots of blood, and there is.
Playwright Chloé Hung is interested in how domestic abuse affects generations, and the fact that it becomes an intergenerational emotional inheritance, a legacy, as it were. She also stresses the strength inherent in these women. After all, Grandmother pronounces on several occasions that, “Swatow women are supposed to be fierce”. In the program notes, Hung’s play is described as a “ferocious comedy”.
Within the structure of the piece, Hung does include an interesting theatricalism, as it were. The actors also portray the past by showing us their earlier lives. For example, Fe is Great-Grandmother and Tram is Grandmother being forced into the arranged marriage.
It is also no accident that they come from a family of butchers. In fact, Grandmother still is one, and Hung works this fact into the fierceness she is trying to portray. The heart of the play is Grandmother trying to get Mother and Daughter to recognize the fierce strength that lies within them.
I found Jareth Li’s set to be very clumsy. Yes, we needed a bathtub (to dismember father) and a kitchen, where the knives are, but in striving to be absolutely realistic, there was woefully little space for director Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster to manoeuvre her cast, leaving entrances and exits, in particular, to be awkward. Designer Shannon Lea Doyle does better with the costumes, both modern and old country.
The performances, however, are worthy, albeit, a little one note and one dimensional. Thus, we have characters who are not at all nuanced. Fe as Grandmother is a tower of strength, a force to be reckoned with. Mother is weak and needs Grandmother’s help to clean up her mess. Daughter lies somewhere in between, although, she seems to be the only one to recognize the horrible situation they find themselves in.
Along the way we do get a discourse on domestic abuse as the women talk about the past and the present, and, certainly, Hung never makes light of the circumstances as a whole. But is she saying anything new? That is the crux of the matter.
Taken as a whole, Three Women of Swatow does come across as satire for satire’s sake.
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