Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Tot is being raised by his beloved paternal grandmother Lola, who showers him with affection and traditional wisdom. Tot is well liked by other children yet somewhat lost in his own world, with an active fantasy life built largely around the world of professional wrestling. He has created a superstar wrestler, The Orbiter, and Lola treats him to a mask of World Wrestling Federation superstar Hulk Hogan. He also exhibits symptoms of begin nervous and ill-at-ease with his lifeconstantly twisting strands of his hair, tugging at his shirt, running in circles, punching the air, and tripping over his words. As played by Randy Reyes (who also co-directed with Ellen Fenster), this is a masterful portrayal of a youth who knows innately that his innocence is heading for a fall.
When, at age nine, Tot's parents send for him to join them in San Francisco, he doesn't want to go. He doesn't know them, and wants to remain in Lola's nurturing shelter. His fears are heightened when he learns that he has a sister, Kitty, three years his junior. Once in the United States, Tot and his parents regard each other warily, without the rush of embraces and proclamations of love one might expect. It will take time for these strangers to become family. Tot feels very much an outsider at school, where he is teased and bullied by his ignorant American schoolmates. Kitty is not much help as she too is an American child with no sense of how Tot feels. Tot's father aspires to be a performer of Latin dances, demonstrating his swaying hips at every opportunity, while he holds down a job at a car wash. His mother seems hardened by her ordeal, wanting, but failing to replace, the well of affection that Lola had provided Tot. When, back in the Philippines, her own mother dies, her stoicism is more painful than if she were to emotionally dissolve.
Life in America does not offer Tot any evidence to reverse his initial fears, and he retreats more deeply into his fantasies. He sees himself as Hulk Hogan wrestling The Orbiter. Kitty becomes another opponent, The American Dream, their father is the hyperbolic match announcer, and their mother is a dame who follows the wrestlers. Meanwhile, Lola is seen as a mother superior, invoking Catholic morality on the family. And all the while, Tot implores his parents to tell him why they waited so long to send for him and why they sent for him now.
Many aspects of Tot: The Untold, Yet Spectacular Story of (A Filipino) Hulk Hogan work extremely well. The sense of abandonment that Tot suffers is conveyed sharply both by the text and by Reyes' fully committed performance (though perhaps some reduction of the hair-twirling, shirt-tugging, etc., would be helpful. I was beginning to wonder of Tot suffered a tic disorder). We also feel the strain on both of Tot's parents, his mother's expressed through muted emotions, in a strong performance by Hope Nordquist, his father's in his outsize fantasy of becoming famous in Hollywood as a dancer, and denial of the just-scraping-by life that is his reality. In this role, Eric "Pogi" Sumangil's over-the-top (in a good way) performance is the source of much of the play's humor, but beneath the comic posturing is a bed of pathos. The strength of tradition and sense of place personified by Lola is strongly felt and richly portrayed by Mary Ann Prado. Stephanie Bertumen plays younger sister Kitty, believably teeter-tottering between eager playmate and heartless tormentor.
The contrasts between Prado's tenderness toward Tot, Sumangil's bravado, and Nordquist's detachment make it clear why Tot is driven to seek shelter in his own fantasy world. That fantasy life is written and staged with a great deal of imagination and insight into the way a nine-year-old boy might perceive the world. Torsten Johnson contributes mightily to this part of the play, as the immensely arrogant, well-toned Orbiter, top dog in the wrestling universe, but still available to be a pal to Tot.
The play makes excellent use of Park Square Theatre's Boss Thrust Stage, with Sarah Brandner's simple wrestling ring set, with a square pit imbedded within the ring to provide different levels for staging scenes, making the action feel near and accessible to the audience. Brandon Ewald's fight choreography is especially well suited for the story, playing within the frame of a boy's television and comic book driven fantasies. The repeated use of Neil Diamond's anthem to America's melting pot, "America", is also effective.
Tot: The Untold, Yet Spectacular Story of (A Filipino) Hulk Hogan is not a perfect work. There are a number of key questions left unanswered, without enough background information for the audience to deduce answers of their own. Among these, what nature of ordeal had Tot's parents endured before sending for him? Why did they wait to tell him about Kitty? Why did they leave the Philippines in the first place: economic betterment or flight from the politics of Ferdinand Marcos? There are some early references to the trials of life under Marcos, but it is not made clear how that serves as a context for the play that follows
A coda at play's end leaps across time, and we are left to wonder how Tot navigated his course from boyhood to reflective adulthood. Also, each scene has a title that is, in keeping with the wrestling motif, written on a card carried across the stage by two cast members identified as "chorus," like the cards carried by well-endowed women that identify rounds of a wrestling or boxing match. The titles help to set Maog's focus for the upcoming scene, but the device distracts from dramatic flow. Besides, for young Tot, these episodes of life would more likely flow one into the other, rather than be experienced as discrete vignettes.
All of these are points that can be readily addressed if Maog invests further work on his play. I hope he does. It is rich in imagination, has dramatic force, and expresses emotions with honesty. Moreover, it conveys the pain and confusion experienced when one is plucked out of their cultural nest and placed in unknown environs. Elements of the story depict unique aspects of Filipino culture, but the underlying tenets can apply far more broadly, making Tot: The Untold, Yet Spectacular Story of (A Filipino) Hulk Hogan a play with enormous potential to give audiences a window into the seismic upheavals experienced by the wave of humanity uprootedbe it due to war, hunger, ideology, natural disaster or any other causein growing numbers around our ever-shrinking planet.
Tot: The Untold, Yet Spectacular Story of (A Filipino) Hulk Hogan, a Mu Performing Arts production, played June 16 through June 26, 2016, at Park Square Theatre's Boss Stage, 408 St. Peter Street, Saint Paul, MN, 55102. For information on Mu Performing Arts go to muperformingarts.org.
Writer: Victor Maog; Director: Randy Reyes; Co-Director: Ellen Fenster; Assistant Director: Christian Bardin; Scenic Designer: Sarah Brandner; Costume Designer: Samantha Fromm Haddow; Lighting Designer: Karin Olson; Sound Designer: Matthew Vichlach; Prop Designer: Abbee Warmboe; Assistant Lighting Designer: Tony Stoeri; Technical Director: Alex Olsen; Fight Choreographer: Brandon Ewald; Stage Manager: Katherine Kenfield.
Cast: Stephanie Bertumen (Kitty/The American Dream), Michelle de Joya (chorus), Torsten Johnson (The Orbiter), Kyle Legacion (chorus), Hope Nordquist (Mo/The Dame), Mary Ann Prado (Lola/Mother Superior), Randy Reyes (Tot), Eric "Pogi" Sumangil (Off/ The Announcer).