Of hairy girls, guilt trips from mommy and how to get hitched

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SELFIE with the audience. Sonia Esgueira in Porralicious 4. Photograph courtesy twitter.com

MAKING THEM LAUGH at cultural idiosyncrasies of your own is a complex challenge that draws together bias, cringeworthiness and caricatures in a way that can never be precious. Ask Sonia Esguiera, who for the past eight years or so has been developing the Porralicious brand. This, its fourth iteration, reflects on the same soap opera-like family shenanigans as the previous versions, only now the family is older, a tad more manic and the granny makes ghoulish appearances from heaven.

Clocking in at about 20 minutes too long, it’s a work bright with local colour, reflecting on the behaviour and guilt trips, the relation to God, sex and properness of members of the South African Portuguese community, with all their fragile pride, their vegetables and their very 1980s-redolent local dialect. Even if you haven’t seen Porralicious 1, 2 or 3, you will quickly catch up with the wiles and dreams of Ruiz and Paula Ferreira and their parents Luisa and Jose, who are about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. It’s a generally hilarious tale of broken dreams, over-the-top melodrama and a yearning for home, in Madeira.

Esgueira is a lovely and imminently watchable performer; she switches seamlessly between characters boldly describing everything from the dead granny to young and older men, as she goes. And she leaves no description untrammelled: from what your vagina feels like after child birth to fellatio at the school dance, and interaction with church rituals and politics, comes under her often very funny and incisive scrutiny. Curiously, it is the men in her repertoire that are more successfully sketched than the women, who tend to be very shrieky and too similar to each other; often their words become part of the casualty causing you to lose the funnies because you can’t recognise what she’s saying.

You may watch this work and think of Irene Stephanou’s groundbreaking Meze Mira and Make Up, which in the 1990s opened the door for this kind of narrative which slices open the belly of prejudice, self-identity, cynicism and tribalism of the Greek community. But the flavour of this kind of shtick reaches all the way back to the self-deprecating humour of Yiddish theatre out of the pen of Sholem Aleichem, which portrayed a community with all its brokenness and pathos with a grin.

Porralicious is an interesting theatrical product which has in a way branded who Esgueira is, and in a sense, this is a double-edged sword for the actress and the industry. Clearly, she’s a performer with great skill and versatility. She handles the work with consummate ability, and digresses, in this work, unfortunately in a spot of audience participation which feels a tad too forceful. Ultimately, you leave the theatre with your yen for the story generally quenched, but a wish that you could see her stretch in a broader diversity of formal performance directions.

  • Porralicious 4 is written and performed by Sonia Esguiera and directed by Heinrich Reisenhofer, at the Studio Theatre, Montecasino complex, Fourways, until June 24. Call 011 511-1988.

How to spice Christmas with shlock, shock and socks

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GETTING on like a house on fire: Son and mother, Cyril Dene (Robert Colman) and Shirley (Toni Morkel). Photograph by Dean Hutton.

THE YEAR’S BEEN grim, callous and ugly to most of us. We’ve lost people we’ve loved. And jobs we’ve relied on. War’s been apparent all over the place. As has disappointment in those who lead us. What better way to herald its closure than to indulge in easily the best nativity play you can imagine. Taking the earnestness from the tale and sprinkling it liberally with cabaret, intimate drunken mother/gay son dialogue and other fine spices, this nativity was a sock puppet drama, with schlock and shock ramped up all the way.

Arguably a character who is set to become iconic in South Africa is Sheila Shler. Last month, wig askew, lipstick smeared, but her posh Saxonwold accent still intact, she reported to facebook audiences from the SQs (servants’ quarters) of her grand estate, announcing that her (former) maid, Tryfeena had captured her house and moved her to the servants’ quarters while she slept. It was a tale constructed by veteran performer Robert Colman, contingent on the ‘Saxonwold shebeen’ saga spouted by Brian Molefe formerly of Eskom in his urge to prove himself clean of a Gupta stain, but that’s another whole story.

Sheila has since begun to enjoy a series, which is developing as we speak. And a family. Of sorts. While she did do a guest appearance in the nativity saga, involving baking and boogying, it was Sheila’s very very good friend, Shirley (Toni Morkel) and her son Cyril Dene (Robert Colman) who hosted the delicious revue. Confused yet? Well, you shouldn’t be.

This collaboration by unquestionably the country’s greatest veteran performers, in their sparkly slingbacks, double-decker wigs and bathing suits, to say nothing of long plastic eyelashes, as they lip synced perfectly to opera and delved with grubby issues of old age, sex and death most deliciously, was simply fantastic. It was a slice of Doo Bee Boobies and a soupçon of what might happen next in Sheila Shler’s life. And it was replete with many hilarious cherries on top, including a performance by the inimitable Irene Stephanou as Jesus’ granny with a strong Greek accent, who resents being omitted from the bible; the unforgettable Christine by Mark Hawkins who has terrifyingly dead eyes and other surprises; and a reflection on Welkom as being a little piece of hell for the aged, by Fiona Ramsay and Tony Bentel (who played Death).

With repartee as filthy and direct as is necessary and puppetry by Margaret Auerbach and Eduardo Cachucho that had the audience bordering on hysteria, there were nubs of poignancy and reality that pierced the show and lent it heart. You didn’t just go away with a grin hurting from too frequent use. Cyril and Shirley’s Sock Puppet Nativity and Xmas Variety Show has the potential of being a trailblazer in a whole range of directions, from Stephanou’s Jesus granny tearing into biblical narrative a la Kazantzakis  and his Last Temptation of Christ, to Sheila Shler’s ongoing tale of woe as a beacon showing the other side of what is happening in this country. This was a one-night-only event, but if there’s a chance it will regenerate itself come the end of 2017, there’s certainly something to look forward to in the year ahead!

  • Cyril and Shirley’s Sock Puppet Nativity and Xmas variety show was written, directed and performed by Robert Colman and Toni Morkel. It featured puppetry Margaret Auerbach and Spellbound Puppets, as well as performances by Tony Bentel, Mark Hawkins, Roberto Pombo, Fiona Ramsay, Irene Stephanou. It performed for a one-night-only season at Pop Arts theatre, Maboneng precinct, downtown Johannesburg on December 15. Visit popartcentre.co.za

Searching for Somebody: sheer performative perfection

Dancing with a fantasy suitor, meet Agape Zevlarides, Gaby for short, performed by Irene Stephanou. Photograph courtesy Buz Publicity.
Dancing with a fantasy suitor, meet Agape Zevlarides (Irene Stephanou). Photograph courtesy Buz Publicity.

When you watch a production of the calibre of Searching for Somebody, you appreciate that perfection is not about choreographed steps in time or smooth delivery. It is about balancing persona with crude realities. It is about a performer standing on stage and reaching directly into your chest and holding your heart in the palm of her hand. It is about language so achingly beautiful, you have to remember to breathe. And above all it is about the sophisticated intermingling of the whole gamut of emotions that sets you laughing and crying, sometimes simultaneously.

Irene Stephanou, the maker of Searching for Somebody, is unequivocally one of the giants of contemporary South African theatre. Having been a presence in the industry since the 1980s, she is – according to So Solo’s director Gita Pather – the pioneer of this very particular brand of monodrama, in which a rich amalgam of humour and sadness, South African complexities and real stories get to see light of day through the voice, pen and heart of just one performer on stage.

Searching for Somebody echoes Stephanou’s previous successes, with a poignancy and a sharpness that reflects a performer in her maturity. Hers is a unique approach in which she takes her own realities and evolves and polishes them into a work so professional and honed that it is able to carry an emotional rawness that touches your essence, making you laugh and weep unashamedly, yet it never digresses into self-serving gesture.

The piece is about the complicated horror of having an incurable degenerative disease, but more than that, it is about respect and self-love. Never teetering even close to the idea of self-pity, it’s a bold and hilarious piece which examines the complex position of the South African Greek community under apartheid, as it glances at Frida Kahlo’s single thick eyebrow, the idea of dating and the tapestry of engagements with the world that a humble dry cleaning business embodies.

Stephanou has scripted and plays Agape Zevlarides (known as Gaby), the manageress of True Elegance Dry Cleaners, somewhere in contemporary South Africa. She has had Multiple Sclerosis for over 30 years. Evading the pity of the world, Stephanou reaches, with searingly uncompromising and searingly funny words into the ways in which the concept – even the language – around disability touches her character.

Like South African born performance artist Steven Cohen, Stephanou, as a proponent of performance, engages with the challenges she has in a splendidly, almost aggressively open way. Cohen is gay, Jewish, white, middle-aged and male – all of these elements come under the intense gaze of his unforgiving speculum. Stephanou carries the challenge of being an MS sufferer and she exposes the anger and frustration, the physical surprises, the disappointment and horror of her illness unrelentingly, but this ain’t no pity party. Stephanou, like Cohen, has the bravery, the acumen and the skill to view all these messy issues with a dispassionate gaze and a level of sophistication that will leave you breathless.

Searching for Somebody is a historic work that celebrates Stephanou in a way that only she herself can. It showcases the magnificence of a true performer engaged in the raw authentic truth, but never losing sight of what a work in state of performative perfection should be.

  • Searching for Somebody is developed and performed by Irene Stephanou and directed by Clara Vaughan. Part of the Wits So Solo Festival, it performs at the Nunnery on October 9, 10, 11, 12, 15, 16, 17, 18 and 19.