Not surprisingly in a post-election aftermath, topical issues figure prominently in this week’s sampling of smaller theater offerings. All have either proven their dramatic chops in previous stagings or present promising new works that avoid heavy-handed polemics and focus on engaging human and personal stories, even as they touch on themes of sexual and racial inequality, mass shootings, tabloid scandals and the uniquely American obsession with stardom.
“The Color Purple” at Greenway Court Theatre
The essentials: Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about African American women in the Deep South of the early 20th century has already proven its fitness for dramatic adaptation, first in Steven Spielberg’s hit film and then as this Tony Award-winning Broadway musical currently in revival at Greenway Court Theatre. Walker’s chronicle of lives shaped by poverty, domestic violence, incest, pedophilia, and racism is an emotional roller coaster in any format, but the lively score by Stephen Bray, Brenda Russell, and Allee Willis employs jazz, ragtime, gospel and blues as an emotional short cut to a soul-stirring tale of adversity, perseverance, and ultimate affirmation.
Why this?: Director Jeffrey Polk takes an intimate, immersive approach to his staging; without changing Marsha Norman’s dialog, he employs original blocking and choreography to reflect more aspects of the novel than previous productions have included. The show sports a 15-member cast that includes veterans of the original Broadway production and national tours, with a five-piece band providing live accompaniment under musical direction of veteran film, TV and stage composer/orchestrator Patrick Gandy.
Details: A Greenway Arts Alliance production at Greenway Court Theatre, 544 North Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays, ends Dec. 9. $40. (323) 673-0544, www.greenwaycourttheatre.org
“Measure for Measure” at The New American Theatre
The essentials: William Shakespeare knew a thing or two about framing social issues in dramatic terms, and the New American Theatre’s take on “Measure for Measure” emphasizes the play’s all-too relevant depiction of religious and moral fanaticism, sexual assault, abuse of power and how quickly we can become comfortable with new and previously unspeakable “normals.” Among the more disturbing subplots of this darkest of Shakespeare’s comedies, a hypocritically puritanical bureaucrat offers to spare the life of chaste heroine Isabel’s condemned brother in exchange for her sexual favors; when she threatens to expose him, his reply is a chillingly dismissive “Who will believe thee?” To which even her brother will later add the argument that given the stakes, the sacrifice of her honor would be no big deal.
Why this?: The company’s Artistic Director Jack Stehlin, also an accomplished TV and film actor, has a facility with bold Shakespearean reinvention (including stellar modernist turns as Prospero and Titus). Pared down to an uninterrupted 90 minutes, Stehlin’s staging leans into “Measure’s” ambiguous tonal shifts between the comical and serious, and incorporates modern/classical fusion music to aid in conceptually merging past and present. As the female characters try to navigate an oppressive patriarchy, the term “MeToo” is never uttered — it doesn’t have to be.
Details: A New American Theatre production at The New American Theatre, 1312 N. Wilton Place, Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 or 7 p.m. Sundays (check website for schedule), ends Dec. 16. $30. www.newamericantheatre.com
“Exit Wounds” & “Confederates” at Colony Theatre Company
The essentials: Burbank’s Grove Theatre Center presents the two finalists in the first year of the bi-coastal Hart New Play Initiative to provide fully staged productions of promising work. Accomplished local playwright Wendy Graf’s “Exit Wounds” focuses on the enduring toll a decades-old school shooting takes on the perpetrator’s shut-in mother and her estranged grandson, who’s started to exhibit some all-too familiar behavioral traits. New York-based Suzanne Bradbeer’s “Confederates” pits journalistic ethical boundaries against the 24-hour news cycle appetite for scandal when an ambitious reporter uncovers a compromising photo involving the teenage daughter of an up-and-coming presidential candidate.
Why this?: Though both stories involve moral quandaries “ripped from the headlines,” they remain fundamentally character-driven relationship plays about the human consequences of topical events. Selected from over 1,200 submissions, both are directed by Christopher Hart, a multiple Tony-winning producer, director and playwright whose Broadway producing credits include “Porgy and Bess” and “Hair.”
Details: A Grove Theater Center production in association with Colony Theatre Company at GTC Burbank, 1111-b West Olive Ave., Burbank. Running in repertory on alternate weekends; see website for schedule. Ends Dec. 16. $38 ($60 for both plays). (800) 838-3006 or www.hartnpi.org/tickets
“Middle8” at Stella Adler Theatre
The essentials: Success — or lack thereof — weighs heavily on the aging members of a Kansas City rock band whose careers never even made it to “almost famous” territory, in a new dramedy with original songs by L.A. Ovation-winning playwright/director/actor/musician Stefan Marks. Named for the 8-bar transitional bridge in the middle of a pop song, the show chronicles the life journeys of missed opportunities and fractured friendships that ultimately lead to the sadder-but-wiser recognition that “It’s not about realizing your dreams; it’s about realizing your dreams have changed.”
Why this?: Who better to portray Marks’ middle-aged bandmates and their epiphanies than the Four Postmen, the L.A.-based rock group he’s performed with for the past 26 years? Known for their highly theatrical mix of musical dexterity and witty lyrics and banter, the Four Postmen have achieved considerably more success in real life than their “Middle8” counterparts. Although their characters in Marks’ play are in no way autobiographical, the Postmen promise levels of authenticity and life experience far beyond what you’d expect from a typical casting call.
Details: A Crooked Arrow Productions show at Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd. (2nd Floor) Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays (also 2 p.m. Saturdays on Dec. 8 and 15), ends December 15. $25. www.fourpostmen.com
The 99-Seat Beat appears most weeks, although it won’t for Thanksgiving weekend. Our reviewers shortlist offerings with an emphasis on smaller venues. Comprehensive theater listings are posted every Sunday at latimes.com/arts.