“The tapeworm was her soul” is about where Ellen West lost me. A new operatic poem in the Prototype Festival, Ellen West draws its text faithfully from a poem by Frank Bidart. The poem was itself inspired by a German psychotherapy text titled “Der Fall Ellen West,” one of the earliest cases of existential analysis. All three explore the final years of West, who suffered from an eating disorder before such terms existed. West killed herself by poison in 1921, at age 33. West’s experience is timely, and the impetus to tell her story today is clear. Regrettably, Ellen West is a slog.
That’s not to suggest that a piece exploring mental illness needs to be fun; it’s more that I wanted to feel every part of West’s complicated journey. Composer Ricky Ian Gordon instead takes up the approach (admittedly suggested by Bidart’s text) that West’s final years were defined only by all-encompassing depression. That is a tricky thing to place onstage. There are no characters here, really. We don’t learn much about West as a person. Her husband and her doctors are similarly non-entities. West has no journey – she is consumed by pain and self-hatred when the show begins and remains so throughout.
In some ways the choice to sit in West’s pain is a brave one. It is also, in this case, artistically limiting. Gordon’s compositions are elegant, but repetitive. Lead performers Jennifer Zetlan and Nathan Gunn sing expertly, but they sing only of misery. Emma Griffin’s staging makes for a gorgeous stage picture at the outset, yet, by necessity, remains mostly static. It would be contrary to the text for Griffin to try and liven up the proceedings. So, she can only hit the same note the text does: misery, misery, misery.
What little flourishes Griffin does include play, amidst the surrounding gloom, as unintentionally funny. Two dancers dressed as nurses move around West and her husband throughout. As West grows sicker, their movements become increasingly inhuman. First they herk and jerk, or writhe on the floor. Then they begin gnawing at walls and curtains. In the wackiest moment, one swallows a crumpled up piece of paper whole. If there is an intended connection between these movements and West’s mindscape, it does not come through at all.
The tapeworm line comes when West is singing of Maria Callas’ dramatic weight loss in the 1950s. The gossip in Milan at the time, West tells us, was that Callas had accomplished it by swallowing a tapeworm. “But of course she hadn’t,” sings West. “The tapeworm was her soul.” The dividing line for an audience may simply be whether that line strikes you as profound or just very silly. Sorry, but hyper-intellectualized misery porn is still just misery porn.