by Cara Blouin
Publik Private, the SoLow Fest entry from Alma’s Engine, explores two historic figures who transcended the limitations of gender within strict social structures. Multidisciplinary performer Eppchez ! creates an onstage documentary reflecting on the lives of the Publik Universal Friend, an agender Quaker prophet from Rhode Island, and of Le Monje Alferéz, a Basque lieutenant who fought to colonize the new world in the name of the Catholic Church, despite being seen by his family as female and exiled to a convent.
Romero and Rooker's costumes allow Eppchez ! to operate and be a puppet, simultaneously. (Photo by Freedom G Photography.)
The descriptions of these characters matter to Eppchez ! (a nonbinary performer who uses the pronouns ey/eir and ! in place of a last name), who wonders whether ey will be remembered on eir own terms, as the Friend and Lieutenant were not.
Publik Private debuted at the Rotunda as part of RE(focus) Fest2018. The show has an intimate feel and therefore plenty to work against at Panorama Philly, an engulfing, un-air-conditioned warehouse up several flights of stairs.
Less is more
SoLow Fest does a great service to younger and nontraditional performers by creating a platform encouraging experimental work with low financial risk. The festival, run by a small group of dedicated and overworked volunteers can’t offer resources such as space and funding, which makes SoLow shows universally scrappy.
Publik Private offers many examples of how limited resources can lead to truly creative solutions. Lighting designer Evelyn Swift Shuker works wonders with eight tiny instruments, three of which are clip lights. In a particularly inspired move, Swift Shuker rigs a black curtain over a warehouse window that can be raised and lowered, flooding the space with natural light for scenes where the Publik Universal Friend preaches, a subtle nod to the Quaker doctrine of the inner light.
In the same way, the use of recorded voices overcomes the sound-sucking space, and a screen on which translations are projected serves as an inclusive solution for non-Spanish-speakers at the bilingual show.
Puppet and costume designers Mila Romero and Gwendolyn Rooker create highly functional, durable, and evocative costumes that Eppchez can step into and out of, transforming into eir characters completely. Because the costumes are constructed as puppets, Eppchez can half step out of them and converse with a character while also embodying them. In one particularly moving moment, Eppchez slips one hand through the sleeve of the lieutenant’s costume and regards it, considering a murder Alferéz has committed.
As a content creator, Eppchez ! is deeply thoughtful. Ey is rigorous about considering the characters’ stories in their full complexity. Often, however, the work gets too cerebral and an audience with no prior knowledge of these figures loses the thread. More show and less tell could make the script more engaging without sacrificing the integrity of eir ideas.
Eppchez’s physical performance brims with potential. Eir precision, skill, and range manifest in small motions, which is why it’s a shame eir movement vocabulary in Publik Private is so limited. Eppchez tends to enact broadly what is being spoken, for example miming sewing with a frown as the broadcasted voice says “I hate sewing.”
With no interpretive tension between words and actions the experience stagnates. Eppchez seems unwilling to incorporate eirself into the story, which is unfortunate. Ey introduces eir multiple identities at the top of the show and exists as a presence addressing characters as “you,” throughout, but Eppchez’s place in the show remains unexamined.
Publik Private hasn’t yet found the clear narrative or thematic throughline that holds it together and pushes the action forward, but the work overflows with interesting ideas, arresting visuals, and clever solutions. SoLow provides a chance for groups like Alma’s Engine to experiment, but this work needs and deserves more support, not only for the new stories and perspectives it offers but because of the raw talent of its creator.