In "Opus Eleven: The Works of Lizzie Borden," a character mumbles, "Very little ever happens here so there isn't very much to tell."
How true. Author-director Dona Cooper's work for ASTA, the intimate playhouse at 612 12th N.W., is a designedly - but fatally - opaque comment on the celebrated 19th-century murder case which prompted the popular doggerel:
Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one!
Actually, it wasn't Lizzie's mother who was killed but her step-mother, which illustrates something about popular myths. Lizzie's death in 1927, 34 years after her acquittal, whipped Alexander Woollcott into one of his finest story-telling frenzies, inspired a play by John Colton, "Nine Pine Street," and a ballet of lasting effect by Agnes de Mille, "Fall River Legend."
It is no small compliment to de Mille that even without words her choreography conveys more of what I think Cooper is attempting than this hour's worth of chatter.
Cooper's aim seems to be that in the puritan roots of a small, suffocating Massachusetts town may lie the reasons for whatever it was Lizzie did or did not do. Her characters, four unnamed women and two men, are, except for one man, totally alienated. They talk to themselves a good deal.
This allows for one to write to a lover, another to keep a diary and a third to peruse a journal. Their banalities are as suffocating as the 1892 August heat, and in their efforts at sincerity the performers murmur the words at about minus-45 decibels.
Furthering the tedium is the dramatist's decision to dramatize nothing. It may be a revolt against violence on TV, but we never hear about, let alone see, an ax, blood or even a threatening gesture.
To remove any sense of drama whatever from the much-written-about case does amount to an intellectual achievement of sorts. The costumes of Karen Katz seem authentic, perhaps meaningful. When the letter-writing lady wrote, "I am wearing my blue dress," I could not avoid observing that the dress was plum, perhaps, or mauve or purple, not blue. Surely that could mean something but, like the rest of "Opus Eleven," it evaded me.