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Carlos Gonzalez-Vio as Milton Acorn and Ryan Hollyman as Al Purdy in Among Men.Dahlia Katz/Factory Theatre

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While gender-inclusive washrooms are becoming increasingly common in theatre lobbies, plays that split the world into men and women seem to still be quite popular on our stages.

Since Toronto theatre rebooted this spring, we’ve already had a crystalline production of Federico Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, a canonical play written for an all-female cast, at Buddies in Bad Times.

Now, two new plays have opened at the city’s new-works companies that signal their single-sex subject matter in the titles: Among Men at the Factory Theatre, and Three Women of Swatow at the Tarragon Theatre.

The first, written by Governor-General’s Award-winning playwright David Yee, takes place back at a time when men were men, or when they might have used that curious expression, anyway.

Enter two Canadian postwar poets. It’s 1959 and Al Purdy (Ryan Hollyman) is building his iconic A-frame house on Roblin Lake, in Ontario’s Prince Edward County, with Milton Acorn (Carlos Gonzalez-Vio), a former carpenter, helping him out.

This is before the two Second World War veterans were particularly known for their poetry, and certainly before they had much in the way of money.

Purdy, whose financial failures at that point included running a taxi company in Belleville that went bust, wrote of building this cabin with Eurithe, his wife: “spending our last hard-earned buck to buy second-hand lumber / to build a second-hand house / and make a down payment on a lot / so far from anywhere / even homing pigeons lost their way / getting back from nowhere.”

Eurithe is often mentioned, but somewhere else for Among Men. Yee, instead, shows Purdy and Acorn sweating and smoking, cursing and drinking heavily, teasing and blowing up at each other. (Purdy, though the more paternal of the pair, has the shorter fuse.) They talk about working with their hands versus their minds – and rank ways to make eggs from the most salt-of-the-earth (over easy) to most bourgeois (poached).

Above all, Purdy and Acorn speak poetry – recited or extemporized – and about poetry, dissecting or gossiping about Irving Layton, Louis Dudek, Earle Birney and some young guy named Ondaatje who’s just arrived on the scene.

Not a lot happens in Among Men, it must be said; most of the play is atmospheric eavesdropping. The veneer of a plot involves a poetry conference at Queen’s University that Acorn, anxious about how he’ll fit in among pullover-wearing academics, must decide whether to attend. The post-traumatic stress that he is dealing with bubbles under the surface, along with complicated feelings about class and culture (and the Toronto “poshocracy”).

Ultimately, I was touched by Yee’s affection for these two men, his lack of judgment toward them and their sometimes boyish antics. He makes the decision not to deconstruct old-school manliness but show the shades of sensitivity that existed within it even at its most blustery.

This is a bring-your-own-cultural-critique production that leaves it up to you to make what you will of the fact, for instance, that the only female poet the two mention, and primarily as a potential love interest, is Gwendolyn MacEwen. (Elizabeth Smart, sit and weep.)

Nina Lee Aquino’s direction is solid and Joanna Yu’s set is as well, except for where it isn’t for the purposes of some slapstick, well executed by Hollyman as the all-thumbs Purdy.

“I Shout Love” begins one Acorn poem, stirringly delivered by Gonzalez-Vio at the climax; Yee’s play shouts it, too.

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Chantria Tram, Carolyn Fe and Diana Luong in Three Women of Swatow.Cylla von Tiedemann/Supplied

Up at the Tarragon Theatre, the Three Women of Swatow are a less sensitive bunch.

As Chloé Hung’s play begins, we find a grandmother (Carolyn Fe, a powerful presence throughout) fanning herself as she reads violent passages from the Bible in her underwear in an overheated and cramped apartment she shares with her granddaughter (Diana Luong).

Then, the grandmother listens to an anxious voice mail left by her daughter (Chantria Tram) over and over, trying to decode the message hidden beneath the surface of its inquiry about a recipe.

It’s visually suggested that the grandmother’s daughter has killed her abusive husband – and that the grandmother, a butcher by trade, might know a thing or two about what to do with a dead husband.

This is all confirmed very quickly. A bloody play has been promised in the marketing material for Three Women of Swatow – and it is swiftly provided, including a bathtub full of body bits stage right and a gore-smeared kitchen on stage left.

When the granddaughter shows up at the scene of the crime – or self-defence – with food for her mother and grandmother, the two older women have to decide how much to fill her in on where her father is, what took place – and why they left China for Canada decades earlier.

Hung’s play made me think about the difference between migration and escape, and seems a metaphor for what repeats because of intergenerational trauma.

But while it has a couple of performances with personality, and a few bursts of style in its writing, it lacks narrative drive – and the dark comedy only lands in fits and starts (at least that was the case in the tricky context of a masked and distanced opening-night audience of mainly critics). Structurally, I felt like I was simply waiting for what turned out to be a fairly predictable backstory to be filled in flashbacks.

And I couldn’t quite get over what a shoddy job the unnamed characters were doing cleaning up the blood in director Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster’s production. Streaks left everywhere – and then they eat on that table? The show wasn’t real enough to reach my heart, or Grand Guignol enough to get me in the guts.

Three Women of Swatow is finding its audience, however – the in-person run was just extended to May 20. There’s also a digital version available for the squeamish.

Among Men continues to May 15 at the Factory Theatre in Toronto; Three Women of Swatow continues to May 20 at Tarragon Theatre in Toronto. Masks and proof of vaccination currently required at both theatres.

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