Mu Performing Arts is producing the world premiere of tot: The Untold, Yet Spectacular Story of (a Filipino) Hulk Hogan. Following the story of nine year old Tot (Randy Reyes), who moves from his life in the Philippines with his grandmother Lola (Mary Ann Prado) to live with his parents in the US. His parents (Hope Nordquist, Eric “Pogi” Sumangil) are distant to their son, favoring the younger child Kitty (Stephanie Bertumen) that Tot has never met. Using his interest in wresting to help cope with being in a new culture and, essentially, a new family, Tot uses his interest in wrestling to weave his own story into that of the fictitious Orbiter (Torsten Johnson), a Hulk Hogan-like character who overcomes obstacles to be powerful and successful, aided by Chorus members (Michelle de Joya and Kyle Legacion) to provide context and commentary.
Knowing little about wresting, I enjoyed the exploration of the performative nature of the sport and the ways in which Tot adapted the stories told in the ring to better understand his own situation. The unique storytelling and great acting work together to make a new, fascinating work. At times, this show confused me and I felt a bit lost. I wasn’t sure if the sequences with the Orbiter were meant to be glimpses of the wrestling Tot was watching on TV or imagined sequences. It became clearer when the Orbiter’s story began to mirror Tot’s (aided by the double casting of the actors) and the confusion could be intentional, to emphasize how interwoven the tales of these muscular men have become in Tot’s narrative. The distance that Tot struggles with, not only being an immigrant in a new places but a child that does not fit into family he belongs to, is especially powerful. Reyes’ embodiment of a child is spot-on and humorous, but also painful as he confusion leads to aggression that he takes out on his sister. Despite the aggression, he also has moments of connection with Kitty and the she understands him in a way his parents cannot. Balancing between humor and sadness, this performance went to a darker level that I was not expecting, gesturing towards abuse that Tot faces from his aggressive father. These aspects were very difficult for me to watch, especially given the discussions of hyper-masculinity in both culture and in theater right now (I’m thinking of Orland as well as the situation at Profiles Theater in Chicago). This is not at all a fault of the production but an issue with my own sensitivity, and no show exists in a vacuum, causing performances look different depending where one’s mind is.
Based on what I’ve heard from my friends over at Cherry and Spoon and MN Theater Love after they saw tot, I think a wide variety of reactions are to be expected with this show – as should be with any show, really. For me, this is a show I’d have to see more than once to really appreciate. As I spent much of the time getting a grasp of what was going on (partially, I’m sure, due to exhaustion from a frantic day at work beforehand), there are greater nuances that I likely missed focusing so much on plot. I did enjoy design of the theater, using the Boss Stage at Park Square, as a wrestling ring with seating all around. I sat in the bleacher seats behind the stage and loved seeing the performance from that angle. As with every new play, I’m sure there are things that could be tightened up and clarified. But sometimes, theater isn’t easy to watch and it’s nice to have a show that challenges the audience and disrupts traditional storytelling methods. tot is such a show and one that’s worth taking a chance on, to support new work, a wonderful local theater company, and stories that often go overlooked, such as Tot’s wondrous, wacky wrestling tale.
tot is directed by Randy Rayes and written by Victor Maog. It is playing now through June 26th on Park Square’s Andy Boss Thrust. Show and ticket information can be found on Mu Performing Art’s website.