Kristin Hersh’s ‘Rat Girl’ gets uneven stage treatment 

click to enlarge Rat Girl
  • Heather Kellogg, left, and Christina Augello appear in “Rat Girl,” a show based on the complicated life of Throwing Muses musician Kristin Hersh.
Kristin Hersh, the iconoclastic East Coast alt-rock musician whose band the Throwing Muses achieved cult status, talks about one tumultuous year, 1985, in her 2010 memoir, “Rat Girl.” The band was about to sign a record deal when she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, then discovered she was pregnant.

Local playwright Stuart Bousel adapted Hersh’s book for the stage; the show is part of Exit Theatre’s annual DivaFest.

Kristin (an appealing but monochromatic Heather Kellogg) is disaffected, talented, self-doubting — and miserable. Her songs pop into her head unbidden, complete with synesthesia (she sees colors when hearing music).

To represent the conflicting layers of her personality — and her profound ambivalence about her gift and her career — a “shadow” self (Allison Fenner) wafts about, sometimes playing guitar and singing Hersh’s angsty songs, while Kellogg’s Kristin talks to the audience, and to others, about her feelings.

Some of the peripheral characters are interesting, and some are not so interesting, like her teenage bandmates. Most significant is the former Hollywood star Betty Hutton (an excellent Christina Augello in a platinum wig), who is apparently Kristin’s surrogate mother figure, dispensing no-nonsense advice about making it in show business.

But Bousel has not yet focused the sprawling story, nor has director Claire Rice found a way to contain and shape the 38 short scenes on Exit’s tiny stage. A wonky lighting design doesn’t help.

An art-therapy class scene toward the play’s end (incongruously played as broad satire) is extraneous, as are the voice-overs, and as is much of the rambling, often trite dialogue. Even the split-character conceit serves to blur the focus.

Kristin’s fragmented explanations of her unhappiness are touching at times, but don’t coalesce in a meaningful way.

The potentially most interesting and clear part of the play (apart from the relationship with Betty), Kristin’s diagnosis and pregnancy, doesn’t come until Act 2 and is glossed over; Act 1 is a shapeless overload of background material.

The cluttered set, and some overacting on the part of the uneven cast, also reveals a lack of focus. At almost 2½ hours (with intermission), the play is too long.

Still, Kellogg’s depiction of Kristin’s despair feels authentic. But Kristin with and without lithium, Kristin interacting with others, Kristin at the beginning of the play and at the end — all are pretty much the same slump-shouldered, exhausted and seemingly indifferent young woman. Once Kellogg settles into the role, that may change.


Rat Girl

Presented by Exit Theatre

Where: Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy St., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; closes May 24

Tickets: $15 to $25

Contact: (415) 673-3847,

About The Author

Jean Schiffman

Jean Schiffman

Jean Schiffman is a freelance arts writer specializing in theatre. Some of her short stories and personal essays have been published in newspapers and small literary magazines. She is an occasional book copy editor and also has a background in stage acting. Her book “The Working Actor’s Toolkit” was published... more
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