In “Predator Songstress,” a new multimedia spectacle by Degenerate Art Ensemble at On the Boards, a dictator without a voice begins channeling the voices of others.
It’s not every Seattle couple that keeps a towering, fur-lined throne in their living room.
But Haruko Crow Nishimura and Joshua Kohl, co-artistic directors of Degenerate Art Ensemble (DAE), aren’t exactly your average Seattle couple.
For 16 years, they’ve been cooking up extravagant mythopoeic visions in their modest home on the outskirts of Fremont. That throne, it turns out, is a prop from their latest multimedia venture, “Predator Songstress,” running Dec. 3-6 at On the Boards.
Degenerate Art Ensemble: ‘Predator Songstress’
8 p.m. Dec. 3-5, 5 p.m. Dec. 6., On the Boards, 100 W. Roy St., Seattle; $20-$25 (206-217-9888 or ontheboards.org).
The key question raised in “Predator Songstress” is whether, in a surveillance society, there’s some way for the watched to turn the tables on the watchers. Is it possible for the interrogated to become the interrogators, or for the voiceless to find a voice?
The show began, as most DAE shows begin, as an intuitive glimmer in Nishimura’s mind. The character she envisioned, whom she describes as a “dictator,” winds up channeling other people’s voices, taking “dictation” from them, even when she has no voice of her own. The catch: In the totalitarian society she inhabits, it’s illegal for citizens to share the stories of their lives.
When this oppressive regime robs her of her voice, she goes into rebellion mode, trying to collect stories and broadcast them by sending out interrogators of her own to ask fellow citizens (audience volunteers) how they “lost their voice and haven’t been able to regain it.”
In re-appropriating the tools of totalitarianism for personal liberation, Kohl explains, she starts to gain a taste for dictatorial power.
In the meantime, her brother (Seattle dancer Douglas Ridings) is forced to collaborate with the powers that be to work his way into a position where he can rescue her.
The show is as concerned with the siblings’ much-tested relationship as with issues of power and disenfranchisement among those who have, or don’t have, a voice in their society.
“They struggle to hang on to this very delicate, very vulnerable, fragile love,” Nishimura says. “Something goes wrong, of course, and their love temporarily becomes broken and dysfunctional.”
“Predator Songstress” is couched in fairy-tale and magical-realist terms, served up as a two-hour, audio-visual-dance spectacle. But it has its roots in her and Kohl’s workaday personal experience.
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As a Japanese citizen, Nishimura periodically has to check in with Homeland Security when renewing her permanent residency papers, a routine that can’t help but highlight an individual’s sense of smallness in the presence of authority. And during a recent trip to London, she and Kohl were startled by how omnipresent security cameras were throughout the city.
With questions of surveillance and national security back in the headlines after this month’s attacks in Paris and Beirut, “Predator Songstress” may touch more of a nerve than its creators intended. On the technical front, the show encompasses more text and video than any other DAE production. It’s far more interactive than DAE shows have traditionally been, too.
Nishimura, Ridings and four musicians (Kohl, DAE assistant music director Benjamin Marx, violinist-vocalist Paris Hurley and singer Okanamodé) are the only live performers in the show. But they have plenty of company in the videos projected on a 33- by-9-foot screen hanging above them, and on smaller mobile screens below.
The video, shot in Washington and Oregon, features familiar faces from Seattle’s theater and dance scene: Sheri Brown, Paul Budraitis, Pol Rosenthal, Alan Sutherland, Christian Swenson and over a dozen others. Sequences filmed at the cooling towers of the abandoned Satsop Nuclear Plant, between Olympia and Aberdeen, look particularly spectacular.
There’s also a live-video component that will include faces from the audience. In the hour before curtain, Nishimura will be in the lobby asking theater arrivals about the joy and heartbreak in their lives. Their answers will be turned into lyrics for the musical score of each evening’s performance.
“Predator Songstress” is a chance for experimental-theater enthusiasts to try out a voice of their own.