Josephine is an artist; her songs transport audiences beyond the banality of daily life into the realm of the spirit. Like the dancer in "The Red Shoes" who lived to dance and danced to live, Josephine's life is her art, and she wants to be recognized as special.

Josephine is also a mouse, a sensitive and divine mouse. She is "Josephine: The Mouse Singer," the focus of a play by Michael McClure now playing at the Washington Project for the Arts. Based on a short story by Franz Kafka, the play is a funny and literate allegory of mice and men: the role of the artist in society, and the artist as egotist.

The "tribe" of mice (defined by pink-lined ears and long black tails over Edwardian-style clothes) works hard, living always in fear of the unseen cat. Josephine pleads to be exempt from work. "What I want is freedom for my art!" she says. "My songs are unique, immortal, different! . . . My songs serve the people." The judge denies her request, and she claims to be wilting fast from the strain of her labors. She dismisses her suitors, saying they would "reduce me to being ordinary . . . female." Her songs are her children and her only love.

Like many artists, she is insensitive to the suffering of others and concerned only with her own; she manipulates her fans, and she sings wherever she wants even if the location exposes her audience to death from the marauding cat. When we finally hear her sing, the performance is both touching and laughable. Kirsten Vance, as Josephine, sings with the intensity of Streisand, the gestures of Sills, the emotional vulnerability of Piaf, and the musicianship of, well, a mouse. The art is both real and counterfeit.

"Do you think what she is doing is singing--or is it some emotional exhibition?" the narrator-mouse asks another mouse. "I know I like it," he answers. In the end Josephine vanishes, and the narrator speculates that the memory of her song will soon become more powerful than her presence. The most awkward moment of the play is the ending, which comes not with a bang but a squeak, rather too hastily summing up "myth and truth."

Director Deirdre Lavrakas' production has charm and grace, although a sharper pace wouldn't hurt this relatively short play. Christopher Hurt as the narrator-mouse speaks his words with style and clarity, and Vance's Josephine is touchingly intense as well as lovely to look at. They are well supported by their fellow mice, particularly Manolo Santalla.

JOSEPHINE: THE MOUSE SINGER, produced by Paradise Island Express. Directed by Deirdre Lavrakas; lighting, Neil H. Fleitell; costumes, William Pucilowsky; set, Kim Peter Novac and Robert Dick; choreography, Sandra P. Fleitell; music, Emily A. Kane.

With Patti Chambers, Adrian Engel, Michael Henderson, Christopher Hurt, Emily A. Kane, Joe Kelly, Manolo Santalla, Leslie K. Strauss, Mark Tuller and Kirsten Vance. At the WPA through June 13.