tot is Mu Performing Arts‘ 50th World Premiere of a new play; in this case, playwright Victor Maog‘s quirky piece about a ten-year-old boy who immigrates from the Philippines to the San Francisco Bay Area to be reunited with his parents. Tot’s parents had departed from then military-ruled Philippines to seek a better life, leaving their only son in the care of his lola (grandmother) until they can send for him to join them; however, Tot’s reunion with his family and adjustment to his new home are rocky, and he retreats to the safety of the fantasy world that is professional wrestling.
Although it’s been over 24 hours since I saw the play, I still haven’t quite made up my mind about it. There is a lot going on in the 90-minute show; in his director’s note, Randy Reyes describes tot as a play which explores “immigration, imagination, domestic violence, the American dream, bullying, and misogyny”. It’s an ambitious project for one relatively short piece, and perhaps unsurprisingly, none of these issues are dealt with as deeply or thoroughly as one might want. On the other hand, it does offer plenty of food for thought and employs some creative storytelling techniques.
tot is staged in a clever and visually interesting way. Making admirable use of the Park Square Theatre‘s Boss Thrust Stage, set designer Sarah Brandner has created an arena stage with audience seating surrounding the stage, which looks like a wrestling ring. Tot’s fantasy wrestling world takes place on the raised wrestling ring, while his real, less exciting life takes place in the sunken middle of the ring. Chorus members (Michelle de Joya and Kyle Legacion) dressed as referees wave placards at the audience to introduce new scenes and locations, as they would announce new matches on televised wrestling matches. Tot’s fantasy world, in which he is represented by an up-and-coming fighter named The Orbiter (Torsten Johnson), includes members of his real family double-cast as their imaginary counterparts; his lola (Mary Ann Prado) is also the Mother Superior who has trained The Orbiter, and his father (Eric “Pogi” Sumangil) is also the Announcer for the imaginary wrestling league.
At first, the blending of Tot’s real and imaginary worlds feel confusing; it is not immediately obvious what he is imagining and what is actually happening around him; is the wrestling all in his head, or is this something he’s seeing on TV? Is it a dream (or possibly a nightmare) or his intentionally created fantasy? The fact that some of the things Tot’s parents say in real life (as opposed to their imagined counterparts) are untrue — his father seems to be in denial about his employment situation, for example — only adds to the confusion. Sitting in a theatre and feeling confused is an uncomfortable experience; I found myself wondering if I was missing something everyone else understood, or if the playwright had intentionally tried to confuse me (and if so, to what end?), or if my confusion was supposed to reflect Tot’s confusion at his new life, or if the play was just accidentally confusing. I’m still not certain, which is distressing; things do clear up as the story moves forward, though.
Something else that struck me about tot was the sudden moves between comedic moments and darker scenes. It was clear from the get-go that this play would create a mix of emotions in its audience; in the first scene, young Tot is hilarious as he fidgets and makes entertaining observations about his life (the maid isn’t very good at wrestling moves!), but tugs at our heartstrings as he asks his lola why he must leave his home to be with parents who abandoned him. Some of the changes are so fast that they may cause emotional whiplash, though, and one particular scene in which Tot’s father beats him are deeply troubling to watch. This isn’t to say that these things shouldn’t be shown, but it happened so fast and so brutally (and, sadly, so realistically) that gasps were heard around the theatre.
The cast is great, I must say. Director Randy Reyes also plays Tot, and does a spectacular job of, well, being 10 years old.Reyes’ real-life sister, Stephanie Bertumen similarly does a good job as Tot’s 6-year-old sister, Kitty, and I could go on, but let me just say that I was struck by how impressive the entire cast was – no weak links, just a lot of very believable people.
tot is all over the place emotionally, and addresses so many issues that it seems to be missing any one deep-running theme. But if these are weaknesses, they are also strengths in that they are realistic; tot is much more like a slice of someone’s real life than a nice, neat story with a conveniently-timed conclusion. In our current political climate, it is important to consider the experiences of others. I immigrated to the US, but as an English-speaking adult who came here by choice and who can blend in and pass for an American, so my experience was absolutely nothing like Tot’s, and I appreciated the chance to experience the world through the eyes of this all-too-real character.
All in all, I would say that tot is a bumpy ride with some kinks to work out, but was visually interesting and emotionally striking. Depending on your background, it may have different impacts; for me, it was a glimpse into a world that I have never personally experience, but for others, it may be a portrayal of their own backgrounds, in a world where theatre rarely recognize their lives. Bravo to Mu for continuing to take chances on new works and to tell stories that otherwise rarely get told.
tot: THE UNTOLD, YET SPECTACULAR STORY OF (a filipino) HULK HOGAN by Victor Maog, presented by Mu Performing Arts, runs June 17-26, 2016 at the Park Square Theatre, 20 W 7th Place, St Paul, MN. Tickets $10-20 with student, group, and Fringe button discounts, at 651-789-1012 or www.muperformingarts.org
*post updated 6/22/16 to correct the name of the set designer; an error originally attributed the set design to Natasha Victa (actually the assistant stage manager), rather than to Sarah Brandner.