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Troupe gives meaning to 'Acts of Futility'

CHARLESTOWN -- Let's start with the title: ''Acts of Futility." Not really marquee material, is it? Unfortunately, the name -- an umbrella rubric for six short Samuel Beckett plays that trade in a what's-it-all-about, minimalist anomie -- is all too apt. The title also inevitably raises the question of whether there's any point in trekking to an out-of-the-way black box to catch a rather amateur production of artsy snippets. The show, as envisioned by Molasses Tank Productions, a company in residence at the Charlestown Working Theater, more than lives up to its billing.

The production's visual style, according to the program, was inspired by Andover sculptor Pat Keck's one-woman show at the DeCordova Museum two years ago. It's a remarkably faithful reflection: grim, white-faced puppets brought balefully to life. But if you're unfamiliar with Keck's work (which doesn't actually appear in the production), the resulting aesthetic is perplexing -- and, when paired with Beckett's own bleakness, appears redundant.

One enters to find five actors, made up like mimes and frozen in place, posed about a checkerboard floor -- nothing too imaginative here, standard avant-garde fare (going back a few decades). In ''Catastrophe," commissioned in 1983 to dramatize the plight of Vaclav Havel (then an imprisoned dissident playwright, inconceivable as the future president of the Czech Republic), we see a director or artist (Jason Beals) telling his assistant (Susan Gross) to pose, partly undress, and change the appearance of a passive but apparently victimized actor/model (Sean Stanco). The scene should be a little funny and a little discomfiting (here it's neither) and end with a gesture of defiance and transcendence -- in muted Beckett fashion. Little of this comes across, though Beals, with an authoritative bass voice, gets the manipulator's arrogance down. Gross, overenunciating, sacrifices the smidgen of realism the staging needs for the piece to be effective.

''Act Without Words," in which an everyman (Beals) gets knocked around and struggles to acquire the basic necessities of life, resembles Jacques Tati-style slapstick. It's a clunkily obvious choice, though, to conclude this skit by piping in Clarence ''Gatemouth" Brown's ''Someday My Luck Will Change."

''Come and Go" -- in which three former school chums (Gross, Wendy Nystrom, and Robin Rapoport) sit on a bench, gossiping about one another -- is the most visually arresting vignette. With the women dressed in vivid hues (raincoats and matching ''Madeline"-style hats), it's colorful.

Beals reveals himself to be a commanding physical performer in ''Act Without Words 2." Two men, wrapped in sacks, are prodded into activity by what looks like a celestial knitting needle. Stanco plays an exhausted working stiff (unimaginatively; he looks like an adenoidal extra from ''Night of the Living Dead"), and Beals, amusingly, a manic go-getter.

''Ohio Impromptu," a vague, strange threnody of loss and regret, is the richest selection textually, though Stanco's lackluster reading fails to rivet attention. Beals, whose only action is to rap the table -- insistently, resignedly -- to demand a repetition, is far more eloquent. And the closing scene, ''Breath," is ultra-brief, consisting of a simulated baby's cry alternating with a group respiration.

In keeping with an overall penchant for drama-school posing, director Steve Rotolo has even scripted a curtain call, in which the actors strike attitudes of mild dejection -- a sentiment all too likely to be shared.

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