Top Ten Los Angeles Theatre Productions of 2017
Review: ‘Plasticity’ at Hudson Theatres
By David Maurer
Mar. 15, 2017
Plasticity is ostensibly a one-man show, yet with some half a dozen distinctly different characters that emerge, fade and reappear at various points within the show, you would be forgiven for thinking multiple actors were on stage. Credit goes to performer and co-writer Alex Lyras, who gives a tour de force performance that inhabits and animates the entire dramatis personae. The play runs through April 10 at the Hudson Theatres.
The one act play explores the nature of thought and the brain’s own “plasticity” — the ability to rewire its neural pathways — via the story of a comatose man who beats the odds to recover. Through ingenious use of lighting, video and special effects, the play is an intriguing mashup of storytelling, pedagogy and technology, inviting audiences to learn about and experience some of the confusion — and clarity — of a brain in the process of healing itself.
David Rosely has had a horrendous accident that has left him in a coma, on the verge of death. As the play opens, we are immersed in a maelstrom of sound, light, patterns and bits of speech — presumably, snatches of memory. It’s a chaotic swirl of sensation, and it’s difficult at first to know what to make of it. It’s only after a succession of appearances by David’s friends and family members that one begins to understand what has happened.
David’s brother is a central figure, as is his friend who speaks pronounced Brooklynese, a psychiatrist and even a shamanic rapping street poet who appears from time to time. Ultimately, the pieces of the jigsaw begin to fall into place, the action becomes less fractalized, and the outlines of the story become clearer.
The characters interact in the hospital and other locations with the help of projections that appear separately on a screen behind the actors and on an invisible scrim in front of the actors. This “scrim sandwich,” as Lyras calls it, is the brainchild of video designer Corwin Evans, who is an adjunct professor of sound design at Pepperdine and head of A/V at REDCAT. Along with contributions from lighting designer Matt Richter, it works extremely well for the theme of the show, with images that move independently yet in harmony within a 3D space, with live action in between. Neural pathways appear to snake through the space, and the electrical charges of firing synapses move from front to back in a sort of interior fireworks of the soul.
Lyras co-wrote the play with Robert McCaskill, who directs Plasticity and who once was his teacher in the art of improv at Chicago City Limits in New York. The pair hit it off and have worked together on a number of projects over the years. With each partner living on separate coasts, their method of collaboration is notable: They used Google Docs, which enables them not only to edit in real time together over the Internet, but to keep track of every change made along the way by each, producing a detailed record of the evolution of the work.
Lyras says writing about the concept of plasticity took a great deal of research, including several consultations with a clinical professor of neurology at NYU. But besides exploring the nature of consciousness and how the brain adapts to injury or disruption, there is an actual story here that provides dramatic interest and a sense of something being at stake. There are end-of-life issues his family and friends struggle with, which many theatergoers will identify with, even though — spoiler alert — David eventually emerges from his coma and re-enters the world he once knew, albeit in a more limited way.
With plenty to see and hear, humor and poignancy, and a novel way of presenting it, Plasticity explores our collective unconscious in a way that is fresh and riveting. This is the mark of talented dramatists. Recommended.
“Plasticity”: Slow work of the brain, an actor’s quick-change triumph
By Dale Greenfield and Eric A. Gordon
Feb. 10, 2017
LOS ANGELES — Plasticity, now in a twelve-week run at the Hudson Guild Theatre, is an inventively staged, skillfully acted, provocative and often comedic exploration into the expansive capabilities of the human mind. Starring Alex Lyras in a multi-faceted solo performance, and written jointly by Mr. Lyras and Robert McCaskill, who also directed, the world premiere script incorporates the latest scientific findings on neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by creating new neural pathways.
The authors look at such themes as resilience, patience, dedication, bottomless love, self-interest, and even sexuality, as a complex visual, social and mental puzzle gets reassembled before our very eyes.
After a traumatic brain event leaves him marooned in a deep coma, with the consciousness of a fetus, David N. Rosely is the seemingly dying star around which a galaxy of characters orbit or jarringly collide. His initials spell out DNR — Do Not Resuscitate. From the outset the audience is enveloped in an integrated, multi-media extravagance as visual projections onto a “scrim sandwich” (one at the back of the stage and one in front), piped-in dialogue, music and sound effects highlight and interact with the loved ones, doctors, hospital personnel and attorneys, all portrayed in split-second sequence by Mr. Lyras onstage. Even Frank Sinatra makes an appearance. For creating this uniquely all-encompassing sensory atmosphere, high praise goes to Corwin Evans (video design), Peter Chakos (editor), Ken Rich (original score), and Matt Richter (set and lighting design).
In quick succession, after meeting our comatose protagonist, the audience is introduced to attending physician, Dr. Rumi Singh, who displays, under such horrifying circumstances, an almost buoyantly over-the-top philosophical bent. A gonzo-style fugitive neurologist, Dr. Leo Azimov (on the lam from a malpractice charge), casts a cynically noirish pall on the proceedings. Fittingly he does not appear in the flesh: His sunglasses-obscured visage is presented exclusively via video projection from somewhere abroad, his trebly enunciation and static, herky-jerky, badly pixelated countenance somehow underscoring the menacing sense of dread hovering over David’s prognosis.
There is enough stimulation to the senses that the production in its totality ultimately becomes itself another “character” — the marvel of modern stagecraft, brought to you by the latest in video and sound technology. The sophistication of the mise en scène echoes the most advanced experimentation in medicine and brain theory.
Interestingly, Mr. Lyras does not directly portray the lone female character of note, David’s fiancée Kate. Nonetheless, she exerts a powerful influence on the goings-on through the male characters so deeply impacted by her presence in their lives.
In a brief but telling observation made by the Henry Bones character, the treatments and care administered to David, even long after his insurance coverage has expired, are a luxury bestowed only on people of means. At the same time, other considerations factor in as well: Is David perhaps worth more dead than alive? The real-life economic class distinctions and ethics of such selective privilege are of course a reflection of an American health delivery system that is far from optimal for its citizens — and likely soon to get worse!
Embedded in Plasticity are thematic echoes emanating from Dalton Trumbo’s novel Johnny Got His Gun, the thoughts of a severely wounded World War I vet lying in his bed. Some in the audience will chuckle at what can be seen as a borrowed tip of the, ahem, hat, from John Irving’s The World According to Garp.
Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor’s literally mind-blowing autobiography, My Stroke of Insight, which details her left hemisphere cerebral vascular accident suffered at age 38 (virtually the same age as David Rosely’s trauma) and its aftermath, might also have provided some source material for Lyras and McCaskill. Plasticity also recalls Margaret Edson’s play W;t, the story of a dying cancer patient subjected to medical experimentation in the interest of science.
This courageous, all-encompassing work of theatre raises critical questions about end-of-life issues and the extraordinary measures we sometimes take to preserve life at any cost, all for the prospect of achieving that hoped-for one-in-a-million miracle. We will not, of course, violate the spoiler rule; but we must ask what resources, and whose, are spent to keep people alive. In the Arctic — at least according to lore — the old and infirm are cast out and left to the elements; in mountainous regions they are brought to a high tor for the cycle of life to resume.
Would we even be having the same conversation if our society were more equitable and far less militaristic; in other words, if the resources were there to make life for everyone as long and enjoyable as humanly possible? And who sets the parameters for care? This is a theatrical experience well worth seeking out. It breaks new ground as a tour de force for the solo actor, for the vigorous freshness of the production itself, and for the discussion that will undoubtedly follow.
Alex Lyras Tour de Forces in His PLASTICITY
By Gil Kaan
Jan. 30, 2017
The premiere of PLASTICITY, a one-man show featuring Alex Lyras as an entire cast of characters, has the great fortune of a multi-talented performer in Lyras interpreting a very detailed script written by Lyras and Robert McCaskill. McCaskill ably directs his sole actor at a quick pace, with Lyras sometimes acting against himself as different characters.
An adventurous dare-devil, David Rosely has landed in the hospital after collapsing in, of all places, his theatre seat. His twin Grant flies in to keep vigil over his comatose brother, along side of David's fiancée Katherine. An assortment of medical personnel and lawyers come into Grant and Katherine's path as decisions and arguments ensue on David's recouping process.
Lyras smoothly slips from character-to-character with the subtlest of body language adjustments and distinct distinguishable accents, even rapping and singing, exhibiting his smooth vocals.
Kudos to all the creatives for certainly one of the more sophisticatedly technical shows ever put on in a small theatre. Video designer Corwin Evans utilizes stunning visuals to vividly illustrate the twins' various childhood and grown-up memories, landscapes, hospital rooms, close-ups of the various people involved, and the denotation of passing time (over four years).
Composer and sound designer Ken Rich, in tandem with, set and lighting designer Matt Richter immeasurably complement the quick scene changes, while advancing the story and delineating personalities.
By Bill Garry
Feb. 7, 2017
Plasticity, now running at the Hudson Guild Theatre in Los Angeles, is a remarkable production. A single actor (Alex Lyras, who co-wrote the play with director Robert McCaskill) plays ten separate characters, interacting with the audience and himself through multi-media projections and other stagecraft.
The show is billed as a trip inside human consciousness by illuminating the latest theories in neuroscience. "Plasticity" refers to the brain's ability to rewire itself, relocating its functions to different areas of the brain and/or neural networks.
But Plasticity, the show, is much more than that. It is about a family and the wretched medical, legal and personal decisions they must make when one of them - David, an about-to-be-engaged twin - suffers a serious brain injury and falls into a coma.
Everyone has an opinion - the doctors, the lawyers, the orderlies, the almost-fiancé, and the estranged twin brother. Lyras plays them all (except two female characters who appear only as projected images), bringing each character's ambivalence, self-doubt and conflict to life with sensitivity and theatricality.
The show begins with David sharing his rock-climbing fanaticism in a vertigo-inducing montage. We then meet Dr. Singh, a metaphysical neurologist, who informs us that while a brain injury has put David into a coma, there is still hope. The brain is full of possibilities that we are only just discovering.
Lyras and McCaskill's script effectively weaves family drama with medical procedural. Humor - both character and gallows - is abundant.
McCaskill's direction creatively uses the Hudson Guild stage, keeping characters and scenes clear and separate. The visual effects, produced by an army of multi-media experts, dazzle, and sometimes overwhelm the 50-seat space. Don't get me wrong - they are artfully produced and totally support the story. It's just that there were a few times when I felt like I was on a dark Epcot ride.
Plasticity could easily fill full-size theaters once the hero's heart - and not just his brain - is put center stage.
Searching for the Disappeared Mind
By Cynthia Citron
Feb. 2, 2017
Where does the mind go when its body is in a coma?
Playwrights Alex Lyras and Robert McCaskill explore this question in their provocative new play, “Plasticity,” now having its world premiere at the Hudson Guild Theatre in Los Angeles.
With multiple projections on a screen in the background and more projections on a see-through scrim in front, Lyras, sandwiched between the two screens, transforms himself, with a change of jackets, a pair of glasses, and a range of voices, into a myriad of doctors, hospital attendants, and concerned loved ones who hover around the bedside or on the phone to follow the treatment of a comatose patient, David Rosely.
David, an inveterate risk-taker, has fallen off a rocky mountain in the midst of a climb and now lies immobile in a hospital bed. The agonizing decisions about when to “pull the plug” fall to his identical twin brother, Grant.
Meanwhile, we are pulled into the confused mind of David as he struggles to retrieve his consciousness. This struggle is reflected in the bright colors and Rorschach squiggles that flash across the rear screen. They are accompanied by brief snatches of memory and ephemeral ghost-like abstractions spinning kaleidoscope-style.
“Who is the man?” asks one of the doctors. “He is the soul in the skin,“ answers another. “The brain is the antenna that picks up the soul,” says a third. “His brain will find a way to live.”
“But only on a par with a fetus in the womb,” says Mr. Bones, an orderly who appears from time to time to offer an update on everyone’s current concerns and emotions, which he disseminates in exquisite rhyme.
In addition to the activities at the hospital there are several very human subplots going on as well. Grant speaks regularly on the phone to his wife, Meg, to keep her apprised of David’s unchanging condition and to confess his own trepidation at having to make life-and-death decisions for a brother he dearly loves.
Then there is Kate, “six feet tall, and stunning” who claims to be David’s fiancee. Her loyalties waver between dedicating her life to taking care of David (“It will give my life a purpose,” she says) and hiring an attorney to forge documents that will identify her as the intended beneficiary of David’s estate.
As the weeks go by, David is force-fed through a tube and then, alternatively, not fed at all so that undernourished, he can wither away and die. “Doctors don’t believe in miracles,” says one. “Life is creative fiction,” says another. But then, after nearly two months, David hesitantly opens one eye. And the audience is guided through the processes and images that ultimately lead David to recover his mind.
Lyras, the solo actor who portrays all the characters, and McCaskill, who directs the play as well as co-writing it, did extensive research into brain plasticity, a term that refers to the ability of the brain to modify its own structure and function even after changes take place within the body or in the external environment.
“The latest neuroscience informs the show’s exploration of how the brain heals itself and ultimately creates the mind,” Lyras says. And the process is dramatically augmented by the visual effects of video designer Corwin Evans, using multiple projectors to create 3D impressions. The innovative music composed by Ken Rich, the set and lighting design by Matt Richter, and the editing by Peter Chalkos all coalesce to form a nearly perfect theatrical event. And that’s not easy to do with a solo performance on a subject so esoteric that it boggles the mind. The Hudson Guild Theatre is located at 6539 Santa Monica Blvd. in Los Angeles.
By Steven Stanley
Jan. 30, 2017
40 something David Rosely lies comatose as his identical twin Grant and fiancée Kate find themselves in head-to-head combat over his right to live or die. If this sounds more like a Lifetime Original Movie than the year’s most spectacular one-man tour-de-force, think again. Solo-performance star Alex Lyras and his co-writing partner Robert McCaskill are back in Hollywood with their latest collaboration, the absolutely thrilling Plasticity, the very definition of must-see theater.
The duo’s previous collaboration, The Common Air, had Lyras playing six distinctive characters. Nine years later, Plasticity doubles that number, its solo star taking centerstage not only as Daniel and Grant but (among others) as Grant’s Indian neurosurgeon, Kate’s psychotherapist, a pair of opposing his-and-her lawyers, a poetry-slamming orderly, a Hispanic male nurse, and (on video) the disgraced neurologist whom Grant seeks out for a second, less rosy opinion.
Simply for the story it has to tell, Plasticity proves a nail-biting edge-of-seater. Equally importantly, the issues it raises could easily fill hours of Dateline or 60 Minutes or Oprah.
Exactly whose right is it to make life-and-death decisions when a comatose patient’s wishes are less than clear? At what point can or should hope be abandoned? And perhaps most significantly, does a seemingly irreparably damaged brain have the plasticity to repair itself?
Under McCaskill’s razor-sharp direction, Lyras positively dazzles in one minutely detailed, immediately identifiable character after another, at times conversing in rapid-fire back-and-forth exchanges and even, occasionally, playing one character live opposite another on video.
Still, if there’s anything that sets Plasticity apart, not just from The Common Air but from just about anything you or I have ever seen onstage (and certainly never in a theater as matchbox-sized as the Hudson Guild), it is its truly incredible production design, 3D effects achieved by having Lyras perform behind transparent scrims that have him literally surrounded by Corwin Evans’s video projections, edited by Peter Chakos into ninety nonstop minutes of theatrical wizardry enhanced by Matt Richter’s dramatic lighting and Ken Rich’s edgy, electrifying original score, all of the above performed on Richter’s ingenious set.
Not only do Evans’s videos take us from mountaintop to ambulance interior to hospital hallway to slam poetry club to doctor’s office to deep down beneath the Mexican seas, they allow us entry into Daniel’s comatose brain in a mind-boggling series of rapid-fire images both animated and real.
Solo performances may be a Hollywood dime a dozen, particularly when Fringe Festival month rolls around with every Tom, Dick, and Harriet seeming to have his or her navel-gazing autobiographical tale to tell. Bona fide one-person plays are far rarer. Shirley Valentine is one, Buyer & Cellar is another, and like those two, Plasticity could just as easily work as a multi-actor tale.
That every single character on the Hudson Guild Theatre stage is played by one amazing actor makes it something very special indeed. Factor in the year’s most stunning sound-and-light design and trust me. The astonishing Plasticity is in a class all by itself.
By Will Manus
January 27, 2017
Hats off to Alex Lyras, Robert McCaskill and the creative team behind the world-premiere production of PLASTICITY, which just opened at the Hudson Guild Theater. What they have achieved with this solo play is nothing short of miraculous.
Lyras and McCaskill have collaborated on many previous stage and film projects, both in L.A. and New York; that the relationship is a fruitful one is evidenced by the brilliance of this work, a play and a production that succeeds — nay, dazzles — on many different levels.
Let’s start with the writing. PLASTICITY is about a man, David Rosely, who is in a coma caused by an embolism. As David lies unconscious in a hospital bed, his family, friends, fiancee and doctors hover over him, arguing over his fate. To pull the plug or not is the question. Moral, ethical and neuro-scientific issues come into play here, in a dramatic and stressful way owing to the life and death urgency.
PLASTICITY'S text captures all of these complexities in a masterful way, with Lyras playing a host of different characters, switching voices and viewpoints in a twinkling. His tour de force performance is both astounding and memorable. Lyras is greatly aided by the video and digital projections (plus psychedelic music & sound) which represent the activities in David’s mind. The use of a scrim and upstage cyclorama help to create an effect not unlike that of a 3D movie.
The main conflict in the piece is between David’s brother and his fiancee; the former believes that it would be more merciful to let the comatose David die a peaceful death; the latter fights like a banshee to keep him alive, insisting that he will somehow emerge from his coma one day. Various doctors weigh in on the argument, one of whom in particular feels that some of the latest developments in neuroscience — namely pacemaker-like Deep Brain Stimulation — could help the neurons and synapses in David’s brain to rewire themselves, allowing the circuitry to become malleable to changes, become functional again (hence the “plasticity” of the play’s title).
It would be wrong to give away the ending of Plasticity; suffice to say that it is as satisfying as it is surprising. Remarkable in the way it takes an audience into the very depths of human consciousness, this is one of the finest small-theatre productions L.A. has ever seen.
PLASTICITY Review - A Multimedia Study of Meaning
By Elaine L. Mura
PLASTICITY co-author and solo performer Alex Lyras explores the exciting frontiers of science and medicine. The term plasticity tells us that the brain has the extraordinary ability to rewire itself, especially after a trauma, which seems to remove the patient's consciousness in one swift motion. With collaborator and director Robert McCaskill, Lyras weaves multidimensional life into a tale of tragedy while portraying the many different individuals who pass through the life of David Rosely, a hospitalized patient in a vegetative state following a stroke.
We meet his twin brother, his girlfriend, her therapist, and a whole host of the people who matter in his life - and finally even his son. PLASTICITY is a multilayered, multimedia production which connects both the inner and outer worlds of these personalities, their very special relationships with the comatose David and each other, and the progression - neuron by neuron - of David's life as everyone tries to make sense of what happened.
Lyras does an artful and nuanced job of becoming each of these people as they float in and out of David's world - along with creating a “scrim sandwich” of thoughts and feelings, conscious and unconscious. In case you don't know what a scrim sandwich is, just think of a very fine netting placed at the front of the stage which you can see through but which can also hold a projected image. While moving images are projected on the scrim, other different images are projected on the rear of the stage. Sandwiched in between is Alex Lyras sharing the thoughts, opinions, and emotions of the characters in the production.
PLASTICITY is a joint effort of many talented artists in which the human and the technological elements are blended to create a world removed from reality but also part of it. The amazing skills of a number of techies adds immeasurably to the play. Award-winning lighting designer Matt Richter keeps the world spinning, while Corwin Evans, a theatre artist and associate producer who specializes in video design, makes sure that the neurons keep chasing each other. In fact, the entire production team skillfully weaves inner, intermediate, and outer life as they wax and wane, connect and separate. Competent cinematography and digital creation abound in this original show.
The strength of PLASTICITY is its ability to create original, enveloping visual and sound effects while still holding onto the emotional impact of the play. As David's friends and family struggle with end-of-life issues and whether or not to “pull the plug,” they also address their own mortality and what makes life worth living. Meanwhile, comatose David must try to make sense of the senseless and organize the disorganized.
PLASTICITY blends cutting-edge science with masterful storytelling and technological sophistication as it addresses profound questions of being. This is a poignant and intriguing glimpse into what goes on in the deepest reaches of the brain.
“PLASTICITY” at Hudson Guild Theatre
By Paul Myrvold
January 31, 2017
In the small hours of the morning, my consciousness sometimes comes lumbering up halfway to a murky level of awareness that is not sleep, but not quite full wakefulness. It is then that precise memories of the near and distant past flow by, as well as roiling concerns over the political situation. I call it rummaging through the files. I am often astonished by the depth and breadth of my own thoughts. I think this gift belongs to everyone, though many perhaps are not aware of it. This kind of awareness is often derided as self-consciousness, as if it is a bad thing.
The mental capacities of other mammals are unknown. Who knows how and what a whale thinks? But after experiencing Plasticity, the extraordinary multimedia performance piece written Alex Lyras and Robert McCaskill and staged with consummate skill by an extraordinary creative team, I am convinced that the human brain may well be the crown of creation.
To simplify, brain plasticity is “the ability of the brain to modify its connections or re-wire itself. Without this ability, any brain, not just the human brain, would be unable to develop from infancy through to adulthood or recover from brain injury (theconversation.com).”
In Plasticity, David Rosely, an adventurer who skin dives in treacherous Meso-Amercan pools, flies like a squirrel in a wing suit, and climbs sheer rock walls free-hand, suffers an aneurism. He languishes unconscious in intensive care while doctors do everything medically possible to save him. Alex Lyras, in a tour-de-force performance, plays no fewer than seven distinct characters, sometimes shifting between two characters in the blink of an eye. An upbeat South Asian doctor tries to be positive in outlook. An orderly, a street poet, has a dimmer view. David’s twin brother, Grant, a high power venture capitalist on a losing streak, is the person who must make the call when the time comes to end the heroic efforts. A devoted fiancée fumes over her lack of standing in the situation. Although unseen and unheard, she is brought vividly to life in scenes with her therapist, her lawyer and encounters with Grant.
What makes this production outstanding is the astonishing level of multi-media elements. The scene design employs a “scrim sandwich” upon which video and other graphics are projected. A virtually transparent scrim downstage and another screen upstage produces a close approximation of a 3D effect. In a few scenes, Mr. Lyras as Grant has Skype conversations with the giant image of Mr. Lyras as a kind of hip, sunglass-wearing consulting neurologist. The screens show multiple locations, as well as visual representations of the quivering neural network of the brain. Video scenes that suggest the entire span of the injured man’s life flow in a visual gush.
Plasticity is smartly directed by Robert McCaskill. The creative team includes video designer Corwin Evans; editor Peter Chakos; composer and sound designer Ken Rich; and set and lighting designer Matt Richter. Also credited in the program are Tim Arnold, Matthew Schiffman, Celia Schaefer, Jonathan Schell, Dean Lyras, Christina Xenos, and the digital creation company, Istros Media.
All the dazzle of the media elements aside, the story has a beating, human heart. The characters that Mr. Lyras creates are vivid and touching as they express the angst, frustration and love that surrounds the looming loss of a loved one. Staged in the intimate confines of the Hudson Guild Theatre and lavishly produced, Plasticity is mesmerizing.