The most shocking thing about Degenerate Art Ensemble's production Predator Songstress isn't the fact it's composed of many pieces put together over the course of a few years, but that those pieces culminated in a pretty straightforward narrative about a woman fighting to retrieve her stolen voice.
The story takes place in a lush dystopian valley where a nuclear plant looms large, but the action starts in the slick, gray lobby of On the Boards. While the audience stands in line for drinks and chats with friends "before" the show, Predator Songstress Ximena (Haruko Crow Nishimura) sits on a platform next to a sign that announces her ability to turn peoples' joys and pain into song, which is a pretty straightforward metaphor for artists.
The lobby lights flicker and the audience scuttles into the house. Security camera video from the lobby (! THEY WERE WATCHING US THE WHOLE TIME !) plays on a screen. In a few scenes we learn that the evil Harvesters, a group of fascists who wear red/white/blue clothing inspired by the catholic clergy and the KKK, consider Ximena's lobby routine a crime.
The Harvesters' organizing principle seems to lie in a demonic reading of Plato's hatred of poets: Kick 'em out of the republic because their exaggerations of thoughts and feelings are...bad. Plato gives reasons for his distrust of fabulists, DAE's tyrants don't, they're just clearly the bad power people, cartoon fascists. Presumably they steal voices because voices carry words and words carry stories and stories, according to the good guys, are the most powerful weapons against power.
The multi-media aspects of the play were stunning and went off without any hiccups. And interactions between Ximena and a video-projected, antler-wearing devilish character (her alter ego? fate? the voice telling her to just give up?) provided welcomely weird humorous breaks.
It's also hard to overstate how impressive and smart Nishimura's movements were. Her joints seemed tethered to the earth by invisible ropes, a nice and constant metaphor for unseen powers that work to pull down the voiceless. There were a few moments—one where she washes up into the arms of her brother like a wave breaking on the beach, and another where she pushes her way through cobwebs she makes with her own arms—when I just wanted to stand up and start clapping and pointing and saying YES DO THAT AGAIN.
The singing and the music supported the action in Radiolab-like ways that made you feel as if you were crying but you couldn't quite say why. Then you realize that the violin just made a D minor noise as Ximena donned a sadface and that's really all it takes. Many of the lyrics championed the power of speaking up and having one's voice heard a little too plainly for my tastes (e.g. "nothing can take your breath away") but it's hard to argue with the message. However, I didn't care much what the lyrics were so long as Okanomodé Soulchilde was singing them. Hoo. Wee.
During the intermission, participants in Path with Art, an arts/social services organization with whom DAE collaborated, asked audience members about a time when they had lost their voice, thus assuming the power of a case worker. Their interviews were recorded and beamed onto the screen shortly before the second act. Technically complicated, but it worked without a hitch.
But then the ending! SPOILER ALERT.
The Harvesters end up catching Ximena, convicting her of essentially being an artist, and banishing her to exile. During that court case, they also sentence her brother to death. When this ruling comes down, she suddenly realizes that her voice hasn't ACTUALLY been stolen—she's had it the whole time. Then the musicians, who have been hiding in the dark, join her on stage for a weird punk rock song, the lyrics to which are projected in scratchy lettering on giant screens behind them. "I'll wage my words!" the punk chorus shouts, as fireworks burst on the screens behind them.
This moment might suggest that we and not the powers that be, are the only ones capable of silencing ourselves. That could be an interesting comment on various forms of self-censorship, but it's a hard one to swallow after watching the predator songstress spit out clouds of dust that represent her voice, and then seeing the baddies cork the voice up in a literal glass bottle and then set it on a shelf.
The semi-magical, overdetermined ending caused my suspension of disbelief to come crashing down on itself. Wait—she just had to get mad enough to find her voice? What about all that running around and organization-building and resistance-fighting and artful deployment of other voices-ing? Why did stories hurt them? How powerful were these tyrants anyway? Isn't life more complicated than this? Doesn't oppression work in more insidious ways? Lots of plot-level questions seem left unanswered, too. What were those tyrants after? What did nuclear power have to do with this? What happened to those other people who got their voices stolen?
In this good guys vs. bad guys performance, the win feels cheap.