The EXIT Theatre’s annual festival of women’s voices, DIVAfest was founded in 2002 as a response to a lack of opportunities for female playwrights in the theater industry. So it’s curious that this year's DIVAFest has one play premiering in full production, and for the first time in the event's 13 years it’s by a male playwright.
The playwright in question, Stuart Bousel, is an EXIT mainstay with his companies No Nude Men Productions, the San Francisco Olympians Festival and San Francisco Theater Pub; and his play, Rat Girl, is based on the memoir by indie-rock icon Kristin Hersh, singer-songwriter of the seminal band Throwing Muses. It's that second bit that's reason enough for festival founder Christina Augello to include the play in her event, though she also performs in the play.
Like Hersh’s book, the stage adaptation of Rat Girl focuses on her late teens: her friendships with the band, her diagnosis of bipolar disorder, her first pregnancy and the recording of Throwing Muses’ self-titled first album. More than anything it’s about Hersh’s troubled relationship with her muse, feeling that rather than singing a song she has to retreat and let the song play itself. It’s performance anxiety, but it’s also more than that. Both her songwriting and her raw, forceful singing she sees as something outside herself, an “Evil Kristin” that scares her.
In fact, Kristin, played by Heather Kellogg, is one of the few characters that we don’t hear singing Throwing Muses songs in the course of the show, at least not for a long time. Within director Claire Rice’s absorbing staging, Kristin is constantly shadowed by a glowering doppelganger of herself that’s always scribbling down songs and will take over for Kristin when she sings.
Peppered throughout the play are live covers of Throwing Muses numbers from the mid-1980s -- when the story takes place -- and the songs are easily the most compelling part of the play. (Kudos to music director James Grady, and to Hersh for writing such knockout songs.) Allison Fenner sings them particularly powerfully as Kristin’s omnipresent "Shadow," but several other characters also sing, usually accompanying themselves on guitar while sadly watching Kristin having a hard time.
Much of the story is about Kristin’s omnipresent anxiety, which she details at length until she seems almost like a catalogue of pathologies. She sees sound as colors, doesn’t like to go into buildings, despises glasses and jackets as a moral failing bordering on betrayal -- she berates her drummer as a “coat slave” when she sees him wearing a coat -- and lives in fear of an invisible snake that’s either her illness or her creativity, if indeed there’s any difference between the two. The play flirts with the issue of whether artistic expression can be boiled down to mental illness, and the implication seems to be yeah, probably. After a doctor (Augello) gives a long list of symptoms of bipolar disorder, Kristin says, “So basically my whole personality.” It’s funny because it’s true. That said, most of the time Kellogg’s jittery delivery makes Kristin seem more artistically eccentric than exasperatingly nonfunctional.
The cast is an entertaining collection of characters who spend most of their time philosophizing and pontificating inanely like drunken grad students (sample quote: “Someone thinking you’re pretentious is just part of your crucifixion”), often coming back to how much pop music sucks. Josh Saulpaw’s set is like the cluttered apartment of a bohemian college student: a stack of televisions with paint dripping down the screens, a lampshade atop upside-down mannequin legs, and various wigs and notebooks strewn around. Charmingly dotty like a proud stage mom, Augello’s Betty gives Kristin advice about the importance of razzle-dazzle and sex appeal, often namedropping the stars of yesteryear who told her the same.
There are a couple of characters who seem as if they might be important in the book, but whom we learn so little about in the play that it’s hard to tell who they are or why they’re included at all. Both are seemingly friends of Kristin’s: Jeff (Tim Green), a grumpy guy who paints and holds forth about what’s wrong with the world, and Mark (Nathan Brown), a sensitive soul who seems to have a mutually nurturing relationship with Kristin, always checking in on whether the other one’s okay. Mark’s so half-present, in fact, that it’s not entirely clear whether he’s intended to be actually there or only in Kristin’s imagination. (Brown and Green also double as some amusingly eccentric music-biz types who help Kristin and company start to gain success despite themselves.)
There are a couple of really funny scenes, such as a barrage of absurdly clueless journalists’ questions and an equally buffoonish art therapy class. As for Kristin’s mental health, there are a few moments that can’t help but be intensely disturbing, and maybe it’s appropriate that you never really know when they’ll happen or why. The story doesn't really have an emotional arc, so much as a series of immediate triggers and responses. And of course there are a whole lot of conversations about the nature of art, which prove useful to shift the focus away from all illness all the time (this is the portrait of an artist, after all), but are also often circular and repetitive, often sounding good but not making much sense. The show’s a little over two and a half hours, and there are entire scenes and characters that probably don’t need to be there. But then another one of Hersh’s songs comes along, making it all feel worthwhile, and making you hope it all felt worthwhile to her too, eventually.
Rat Girl runs through May 24, 2014 at the EXIT Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit divafest.info.
All photos by Claire Rice.