Monday, June 20, 2016

A Spectacularly Told "Spectacular Story of a Filipino Hulk Hogan"

Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice once said.

Photo courtesy of Mu Performing Arts.
This is my first year covering Mu Performing Arts, and if it's any indication of every other year, I'm in for a treat regardless of which shows I see.

The special thing about Mu's pieces is that they all have a unique, strongly presented take on the American experience - particularly the experience of immigrants to America. Much like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie re-defined the experience of blackness in America as an immigrant (American-African vs. African American, for those in the know), Mu's work is re-framing the experience of Asian immigrants in a way that is complex, rich, complicated, pensive, difficult, and heartbreaking.
Photo courtesy of Mu Performing Arts.
All of these emotions are present in Mu's latest offering, The Untold, Yet Spectacular Story of (a Filipino) Hulk Hogan. The story follows TOT, a boy being raised by his beloved grandmother Lola in the Philippines, as he is moved to America to join his parents and leaves Lola behind. The transition is a painful one, not only for TOT but for Lola, left alone, and for his parents, whom TOT struggles to create a relationship with. As TOT grows, he becomes more and more interested in the subculture of World Wide Wrestling, particularly Hulk Hogan. TOT channels his experiences through Hogan's character (much like autistic children have been known to communicate through Disney characters). Although never quite finding peace, he does come to understand his parents a little better and that they have also struggled with the move to America.
Photo courtesy of Mu Performing Arts.
This play is told in an unconventional style, with the action entirely taking place inside of a wrestling ring and the audience seated 360 degrees around it. "Referees" announce scene changes, and actors play multiple characters. It can be a little hard sometimes to see the line between TOT's fantasy and reality, but that is part of this play's genius: it creates an uncomfortable tension in the audience that helps them to truly grasp the discomfort TOT and his family feel as immigrants to a country that promised them everything, but doesn't seem to really want them once they are there.
Photo courtesy of Mu Performing Arts.
Randy Reyes is great as TOT, managing to keep a childlike demeanor throughout the play. The most enjoyable are Eric "Pogi" Sumangil as TOT's father and the Announcer and Mary Ann Prado as Lola/TheMother Superior. Sumangil brings a perfectly imitated swaggering cowboy bravado to his role, making it all the more moving when his facade collapses in front of his son. Prado brings a gorgeous humanity to her role as TOT's grandmother, filling the stage with warmth and comfort. Her death at the end of the play is incredibly stirring, and will have more than one audience member swiping back tears.

I loved the innovative, economical set. The wrestling ring setting really focused the action and kept the play clipping by (at 90 tight minutes), since it needed no set changes. The lighting, alternating between the beachy warmth of the Philippines, the sterile fluorescence of the United States, and the sparkling flashbulbs of a wrestling arena, truly changed the mood. Costumes were equally simple, but also squarely grounded the show between humdrum life and exotic fantasy.
Photo courtesy of Mu Performing Arts. 
In the hullaballoo of the coming presidential elections when everything is hyped to new extremes, it's easy to forget the simple things about what it means to be American. Chief among them is the incontrovertible fact that this is a nation of immigrants, even if we haven't always done a good job of welcoming them equally. This problem has faced people of all colors, and the innovative storytelling from Mu Performing Arts beautifully captures this diverse, difficult, humbling experience. The Untold Yet Spectacular Story of (a Filipino) Hulk Hogan is a strikingly original show and one that you will definitely remember seeing. It only runs for one more week. Make sure you get your tickets and more information by clicking on this link.