Boston theatre does not usually get the luxury of seeing original plays get a second draft and production. Playwright and Producer Cassie M. Seinuk revives her award-winning Eyes Shut. Door Open. to critical success, sharpening the play’s focus, expanding key moments, and re-defining our understanding of this Cain-and-Abel story. The production boasts many of the same delights, especially the thrilling cast, as the original production. The trimmed script and additional technical resources allow the play to be seen with new eyes; the key, however, is for the play to be seen and appreciated for all of its spectacle and thrills.
Eyes Shut. Door Open. explores the psyche and evening of a successful but tormented artist, Turner Street (Victor Shopov), as he invites a cocktail waitress, Johanna (Melissa deJesus), back to his trim but nicely decorated apartment (the improved venue at Warehouse XI helped accentuate the grandeur of the high stucco walls, wonderfully textured). The night does not go according to plan. Turner’s troubled brother, Palmer Street (Michael Underhill), arrives fresh off the bus from Ohio with his own agenda for the evening, including getting money from his older brother, presumably to buy whatever drugs are available in New York City later that night. We soon learn of the brothers’ history back in Eaton, Ohio (which sounds more and more like Eden as the actors spit the name of this lost and back-woods town), including the brothers’ abusive family life. None of this backstory compares to or prepares us for the revelation of the cause of Palmer’s eye injury, for which he now sports an eyepatch and a self-deprecating sense of humor, complete with pirate jokes.
The play still wobbles in the first scene, opening in the gallery part of the Warehouse XI, after we have enjoyed wine and snacks, looking at Turner’s paintings in this gallery (paintings are actually the original and inspired work of Seinuk). Shopov begins the show smugly leaning against a structural support in the center of the room, enticing and welcoming us with his monologue. We realize that there is another character in the room, and deJesus’s Johanna begins her banter with Shopov’s Turner. The banter feels as long-winded as I remember it. deJesus and Shopov lack some of the cat-and-mouse antics from their prior production, perhaps because of the larger venue this time, perhaps because they have to navigate a crowded space of audience members. The play really begins in Turner’s apartment in the next scene, as the audience is ushered to their seats in the next room, and the door opens with deJesus and Shopov returning for a late night rendezvous.
Except even this scene struggles under a lethargic weight. Unlike last time, I knew many of the twists and turns in the play’s story (few, if any, were changed). Instead, the dialogue to tell and explore these plot points, including the extensive exposition and backstory, is tightened, focused, and reshaped. However, I struggled to find the urgency or discovery in this performance. The actors felt like they were going through the motions, and, not until the unannounced arrival of Underhill’s Palmer did the play truly begin to sizzle and shake. Johanna felt more one-dimensional in this production, and, knowing her story, I looked for clues along the way prior to revealing her character’s interests and motives; I couldn’t find these moments, especially in the opening scene. deJesus felt tired, and she did not match Shopov’s drive or enthusiasm in the same way as before. Johanna’s motives and influence still feels forced in order to serve a plot device to fully explore the brothers’ relationship.
At the heart of the story is a modern thrilling imagining of Cain and Abel through Turner and Palmer. This story feels even more visceral and heart-pounding. The thrills are accented by the additional rehearsal and change of space, as Underhill and Shopov battle like never before. The venue, however, does not lend itself to heightening these emotions and conflict. The deep and open playing and audience space makes the production feel removed from the audience’s senses, and only when the technical elements (brilliantly reimagined and accented) transform this world do we truly experience the play for all of its thrill. I wish that a lot of this thrill could be felt in the play’s more realistic moments.
And what mend-bending thrills. The dark recesses of these characters are explored with shocking clarity through the trimmed but no-less effective sound design, which reverberates and haunts long after we leave these haunts; the enhanced set design, complete with a wall that feels like it inches closer and closer with every passing moment; and a shadow-filled and colorful lighting design that reflects as much as it absorbs of this play’s haunting world. Sound Designer Patrick Greene seems to trimmed and refined how sound enhances and expands this story, creating almost an entirely new feel that chill to the bone. Kyle Blanchette’s set felt more open due to the production’s changed venue, which afforded a different feel to Turner’s apartment, less dungeon, more lofty. Christopher Bocchiaro’s lighting, however, is where the biggest changes from the original production are felt. With additional resources and greater clarity, the lighting demands our attention as a fourth character, introducing us to a few more characters too. It is the seamless blend of these technical elements that sharpen our senses and blur the line between the conscious and subconscious. They grab you and they do not let go.
Seinuk’s revival and re-writing of Eyes Shut. Door Open. is a successful endeavor, opening not only a new playing space in Union Square in Somerville (convenient parking and a host of available restaurants make this an ideal date night, if you don’t mind creeping out your partner, but with plenty to discuss over dinner or drinks after the performance), but also opening Boston to the possibility of revisiting popular original plays. Seinuk’s model of self-producing is ambitious and mostly works; some artistic distance might be necessary for enhanced marketing and promotion. The action will feel alive, and the acting will surprise and engage you, especially if this is your first showing of this thrilling new play. I felt a little rubbed raw, seeing the production on what felt like an “off” night, suffering from decreased energy, both on-stage and in the audience. The play continues to take shape, creating a beautiful, detailed, thought-provoking picture of familial history, trauma, and self-loathing. I continue to believe that this is one of the more thought-provoking, encouraging, and demanding original plays in Boston in the past year; it lives up to my prior assertion that the play (and this production) is a Must See.
Eyes Shut. Door Open. continues to run at the Warehouse XI in Somerville, Massachusetts, from now until May 26, 2016. Tickets are available here. Use promo code "TURNER10" for $10 tickets.