By BRUCE DENNILL
Porralicious 4 / Directed by James Cuningham / Studio at Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, Johannesburg 8
Lightning theoretically never strikes the same place twice, making the success of this fourth instalment of writer, comedian and actress Sonia Esgueira’s intimate epic about a Portuguese family resident in South Africa hugely unlikely. That sentence mangles the logic of both mathematics and meteorology, but any performer who has built more than one one-person around the same theme or story will tell you that diminishing returns are, if not expected, then at least a consideration when mounting a new production.
Esgueira gets around this by using the simple but difficult to achieve formula of being extremely good at every aspect of the show she is responsible for. Her script provides all the detail, nuance and detail to all all of her characters – she plays a grandmother, a mother and father, and a son and daughter, all from a single immigrant family, plus the daughter’s hapless husband – the sort of definition that a good actor could give to a single role. On top of that, there are truckloads of jokes, both closely associated with Portuguese culture and those ignorant of it. Curiously, the audience’s familiarity with the relevant lifestyle or language references seems to have little or no impact on the effectiveness of the gags, with the result that laughs are constant and heartfelt throughout the theatre.
When there are no laughs, it is because the tone of the story at that point requires an examination of a character that goes beyond just their capacity to amuse, revealing, for instance, the sensitive heart of a hairy-chested alpha male or the profound concern that lurks behind a mother’s nasal nagging. Getting the tone of both these approaches right and keeping them balanced in a satisfying way throughout a show is an underrated skill, and one that Esgueira seems to be refining even further as she develops the story of the Ferreira family.
Running to around 90 minutes and featuring six characters, Porralicious 4 is a formidable acting feat. Esgueira distinguishes each character with a physical stance, an apparently unconscious tic (flicking hair off shoulders; shaking a wrist in a particular way), a particular way of speaking and the slight adjustment of accents and vocal pitch to suit age and gender. However well-rehearsed she is, the actress displays phenomenal focus to never allow any of the various facades to slip for a second.
The combination of all this proficiency makes what you expect to be an entertaining but relatively lightweight production considerably more than that. The examination of the emotional consequences of settling in a new country that places new demands on a family is fairly superficial and gently dealt with, but it is poignant nonetheless. Also, the evolution of each character from apparent caricature to fully realised role-player is gratifying to watch. And that all of this is achieved while keeping the whole piece accessible to mainstream audiences is another reason for applause. Esgueira may have typecast herself to some degree with this series, but what she does on stage confirms that she cannot be accused of being in any way limited.