"Eyes Shut. Door Open." Thrills With Intensely Memorable Cain and Abel Twists

JOhanna (Melissa M. DeJesus) and Palmer (Michael James Underhill) in  Eyes shut. Door Open.  (Photography by Niles Hawver/Nile Scott Shots).

JOhanna (Melissa M. DeJesus) and Palmer (Michael James Underhill) in Eyes shut. Door Open. (Photography by Niles Hawver/Nile Scott Shots).

Wax Wings Productions brings its unique flair to a new space this August.  Hidden in Dudley Square, The Inner Sanctum Gallery provides the perfect, intimate space to perform Cassie M. Seinuk’s newest play, Eyes Shut. Door Open.  The play is one of Seinuk’s strongest, offering both a modern exploration of the classic Cain and Abel story, and a deconstructionist view of art, its creation, and, most of all, the psyche of its creator.  With an all-star cast and a strong director, the play succeeds in captivating the audience until the play’s final moments, a thrilling cat-and-mouse game of shifting alliances, growing paranoia, and heart-pounding suspense.

Eyes Shut. Door Open is about a successful young artist, Turner Street (Victor Shopov), celebrating one of his recent exhibit openings in SoHo of New York City.  Joining him, mysterious caterer, Johanna (Melissa M. DeJesus), challenges Turner and his artistic versus commercial success.  Their banter sizzles at times, but the Beatrice/Benedick witticisms run long for modern standards; do most modern couples have the stamina for this intellectual discourse?  DeJesus establishes herself as Shopov’s equal in every way, capturing him and the audience off-guard with her sharp retort and cool delivery.  The opening scene runs long, and it could be shortened to keep the play moving in positive directions towards the inevitable: Turner’s apartment, the ultimate destination for the evening.  Some colleagues argued that this scene could be cut completely, but this opening scene in the gallery establishes Turner’s dominance, a place where he has complete control with a smirk, a glance, and a flourish.  Shopov’s smarmy self-confidence is wonderful to watch, especially when you have the foreboding feeling that this assurance will soon disappear over the next ninety minutes.

Once back at Turner’s apartment, Johanna reacts to Turner’s growing paranoia, especially about a certain locked studio in his apartment.  Turner plied Johanna back to his apartment by teasing a sneak peek at some more “raw” paintings; it seems as if Johanna has an interest in both seeing the exposed paintings and an exposed Turner.  DeJesus’ makes Johanna’s intentions and interests both moment-to-moment clear and equally as secretive.  Shopov’s Turner begins to unravel as the seams, thanks to Patrick Greene’s alarming and disturbingly real sound effects.  The raw, nagging sound of Turner’s inner voices perfectly interrupt the action; the garbled sound and the overplay of music and voice-over intrigue and haunt. 

And just when you think that everything might be under-control, we are introduced to the classic unannounced third character.  Seinuk has done her homework in writing this thriller.  Her playwriting notes emphasize some of the questions about why “we as artists do what we do.”  But it’s apparent from her command of this genre and her deconstruction of the style that Seinuk acknowledges the parallels to her work and knows enough to diverge successfully from its precursors.  The play becomes a modern Cain and Abel story mixed with a cerebral thriller that would keep Stephen King and Alfred Hitchcock shivering in their seats.  Layered on top of this structure, Eyes Shut. Door Open. explores the real concern over Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the cyclical nature of trauma, art as an escape, and what keeps us going through our days.  The play is smart as hell, and it will keep even the most active audience members guessing to the play’s outcome until the final climax.  But not before the characters have dragged you to hell and back.

Michael James Underhill has done many impressive roles in the past year, emerging as one of the most transformative fringe actors in the Greater Boston area.  He has created another masterpiece in his Palmer Street, Turner’s ne’er-do-well and troubled younger brother.  Shopov and Underhill have an electric chemistry.  Their arguments, fights (excellent job by Rose Fieschko to keep the young men fighting at our feet with safety and excitement), and, moreover, love are instinctual, demonstrating not only their talent but trust in each other as performers. Underhill thunders around the space, carrying secrets with him like a metaphorical hunch; Shopov transitions seamlessly between his conscious and unconscious, pushing down his secrets away from view.  The spiral out of control is perfectly orchestrated by Director Christopher Randolph, pacing the reveals and explosions of Seinuk’s suspenseful story.  Randolph grabs his audience by the hand to lead them into Turner’s mind and he refuses to let go, holding onto the audience with a devilish hand.  The demons that we hold inside are exposed along with Turner’s inner torments and we are captive and captivated.

Johanna (Melissa M. DeJesus) and Turner (Victor Shopov) in  Eyes Shut. Door Open.  (Photography by Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots).

Johanna (Melissa M. DeJesus) and Turner (Victor Shopov) in Eyes Shut. Door Open. (Photography by Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots).

While some of the technical elements of the production are gimmicky, particularly the lighting by Christopher Bocchiaro which never touches upon subtle, the overall production is reinforced with the impressive performances, clever direction, and smart script.  Costume Designer Stephanie K. Brownell displayed excellent attention to detail with the three characters, accenting history and story with a torn sweatshirt, a flattering vest, and accented jewelry.  The set by Kyle Blanchette transforms The Inner Sanctum into both the sprawling art gallery and the intimate New York apartment.  With the exception of Greene’s memorable sound design, the technical elements of this production fade away to allow Seinuk’s unforgettable characters to emerge, debate, fight, and thrill. 

With one of the strongest new scripts of the season and a must see for fans of psychological thrillers, East of Eden, or impressive new plays, Eyes Shut. Door Open. was a play that sticks with you, spurring discussion, introspection, and empathy long after the play’s disturbing conclusion.  This is a play worth seeing, worth discussing, and worth remembering, lest we forget the possibility of young Boston playwrights to offer new perspective and influence to the Greater Boston theatre scene.  And who doesn’t love the beautiful synergy of Shopov, Underhill, and promising newcomer DeJesus?  Find out why this intense play continues to stare me in the face, refusing to let go until I encounter my own inner demons as an artist and person.

Wax Wings Productions’ "Eyes Shut. Door Open." By Cassie M. Seinuk. Directed by Christopher Randolph. At the Inner Sanctum, 18 Palmer St., Roxbury (across from Dudley Station), now through August 15, 2015. www.waxwings productions.com.