Russell Street Theater
116 NE Russell
OK, let's be frank with each other. I rarely laugh in the theater. It's not because plays aren't funny; it's because in Portland's mostly miniature auditoriums, you are practically in the actors' front pockets. It's too fourth-wall, jarringly tense to keep your mind on the characters and the text as you resist squirming too loudly in your uncomfortable chair while dodging the saliva issuing from the actor standing two feet in front of you. But if my laughs are squelched by self-consciousness, those around me roar. Except I don't believe they are really getting the jokes; they are laughing at 500-year-old Shakespeare lines in another language. And in modern plays, they chortle not because the lines are funny, but because they are cued to laugh by an upraised eyebrow or a facial expression that screams, "This is funny!" Take the season debut from Cygnet Productions, Not About Heroes. Are Portlanders really sophisticated enough to understand the nuances of the primarily gay relationship between the older poet Siegfried Sassoon and his protegè Wilfred Owen which blossomed during the height of World War I, within a literary context that drops names such as H. G. Wells and Robert Graves, and which addresses complicated matters of warfare and international politics? I doubt it. And besides, the play just isn't that funny. But that's the only thing wrong with it. Grant Byington (Sassoon) and Jeffrey Szusterman (Owen) are superb in this simple, two-person production by Stephen MacDonald that chronicles the poets' short-lived but intense friendship. Director Jon Kretzu uses the theater's small space well, which stands in believably for Sassoon's study and the sanatorium when they met. This is a play that loves books, writing, ideas. It requires preparation for full enjoyment. An immersion in the poetry and the politics of the time helps. Read on, reader. Then you will really get the jokes.