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The 99-Seat Beat: Are we ready for some plays about moral responsibility?

The 99-Seat Beat: Are we ready for some plays about moral responsibility?
Sharon Freedman and Anil Margsahayam, foreground, with Andy Shephard in Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA's “Pigs and Chickens.” (Kevin Comartin)

Ethics, shmethics. Who needs ’em nowadays? Read each day’s headlines and our culture may seem like it’s falling further down a slippery slope, but this week’s promising selections from the small theater scene push back with plays that reaffirm the importance of moral responsibility and accountability, whether in politics, romance, the workplace or religion.

Here’s a quick rundown of Independent Shakespeare Company’s “All’s Well That Ends Well,’ Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA’s “Pigs and Chickens,” the Echo and Circle X co-production of “An Undivided Heart” and Actors Co-op’s “A Man for All Seasons.”


‘All’s Well That Ends Well’

The essentials: Independent Shakespeare Company, best known for freewheeling summer productions in Griffith Park, inaugurates its expanded and renovated 1,400-square-foot venue with a streamlined, eight-actor adaptation of this seldom-performed play. Its plucky heroine’s amorous pursuit of a dubiously worthy mate implicitly mirrors the stratagems, subterfuges and slippery ethics of a military campaign — a provocative clash of comic and tragic elements that resists easy classification (hence the play’s inclusion as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”).

Why this? Navigating tricky tonal ambiguities in classical texts is ISC’s forte. Describing the play as “one where Shakespeare suggested improbable solutions to intractable problems,” director and company co-founder Melissa Chalsma approaches it as a fairy tale that subverts expectations of the fairy tale genre. Building on ISC’s accessible style of speaking Shakespeare’s verse, the production further distinguishes scenes that are written in prose through the way they’re staged, adding English folk songs to serve as an emotional framing device.

Details: An Independent Shakespeare Company production at ISC Studio, Atwater Crossing Arts & Innovation Complex, 3191 Casitas Ave., No. 130, L.A. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. In previews now, opens March 24, ends April 22. $35. (818) 710-6306, www.iscla.org

April Fritz in “All’s Well That Ends Well.”
April Fritz in “All’s Well That Ends Well.” Mike Ditz

‘Pigs and Chickens’ at EST/LA

The essentials: The promise of cutting-edge technology collides with messy human insecurities, petty rivalries, back stabbing and finger pointing as wonky engineers scramble to launch their fully automated Human Resources platform. Drawing on his experience working at a dysfunctional tech startup, playwright Marek Glinski’s new play takes modern office alienation and depersonalization to absurdist extremes, as the product’s highly artificial intelligence turns out to have socialization issues of its own.

Why this? In recent productions, Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA successfully lampooned class warfare with razor-sharp comic timing in “Mutual Philanthropy,” and director Kevin Comartin helmed the company’s Kafkaesque ordeal of a Dreamer trying to play by the rules in “WET: A DACAmented Journey.” Comartin says Glinski’s play “captures the many pitfalls of working with other human beings but ultimately demonstrates why our relationships with people are so important.”

Details: An Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA production at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays, ends April 15. $15-$20. 818-839-1197, dime.io/events/pigs-and-chickens


‘An Undivided Heart’ at Atwater Village Theatre

The essentials: When willful ignorance is no longer an option, does silence become a sin of complicity? In a premiere from Echo Theater Company and Circle X Theatre Company, Yusuf Toropov’s metaphysical morality play draws on two Boston-area scandals from the early 1990s. A Catholic priest faces the ultimate test of faith when his loyalty to the church is pitted against his obligation to expose a sexual abuse cover-up, while the victims of a contaminated drinking water supply search for meaning.

Why this? Both theater companies — and Echo director Chris Fields in particular — specialize in fearless, hard-hitting contemporary dramas and innovative staging. The evocative script’s twin story lines and multiple realities converge in something of a thematic cross between “Spotlight” and “A Civil Action,” topped with a layer of Zen. “Even in the darkness,” Fields says, “we are each of us capable of great good and of transcending the darkness that sometimes seems to surround us.”

Details: An Echo Theater Company and Circle X Theatre Company co-production at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays; 4 p.m. Sundays; ends April 22. $20-$34. (310) 307-3753, www.echotheatercompany.com

Matthew Gallenstein in “An Undivided Heart.”
Matthew Gallenstein in “An Undivided Heart.” Darrett Sanders

‘A Man for All Seasons’ at Actors Co-op

The essentials: When it comes to acting with the courage of one’s convictions, it’s hard to find a more compelling embodiment than Thomas More, the 16th century Chancellor of England who put everything on the line in refusing to endorse divorce fanboy Henry VIII’s contempt for the rule of law. Robert Bolt’s classic bio-drama offers even more intrigue, moral quandaries and emotional nuance than its Oscar-winning 1966 film adaptation.

Why this? This revival is an ideal fit for Actors Co-op, the Christian faith-based company that applies high theatrical standards to exploring the role of spiritual values in secular life. As More, Bruce Ladd (the memorable Beethoven in the company’s recent hit, “33 Variations”) faces his crisis of conscience and the temptations of expediency. His struggle is a much-needed reminder of what personal integrity looks like.

Details: An Actors Co-op production at David Schall Theatre, 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays; ends April 15. Additional performance 2:30 p.m. this Saturday, dark March 30-April 1. $30. (323) 462-8460, www.actorsco-op.org

Bruce Ladd in “A Man for All Seasons.”
Bruce Ladd in “A Man for All Seasons.” Matthew Gilmore

The 99-Seat Beat appears every Friday. Our team of reviewers — people with more than 75 years of combined experience tracking local theater — shortlists offerings with an emphasis on 99-seat theaters and other smaller venues. Some (but not all) recommendations are shows we've seen; others have caught our attention because of the track record of the company, playwright, director or cast. You can find more comprehensive theater listings posted every Sunday at latimes.com/arts.

See all of our latest arts news and reviews at latimes.com/arts.

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