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THEATER REVIEW

Roots stretching back to Moscow

A grandson's search rings with rich authenticity in 'Not Dead Yet.'

September 09, 2004|David C. Nichols | Special to The Times

"I've been here over a week, and suddenly I've become the funny foreigner everyone likes to mess with." So says Jacob Samson, a modern American in Moscow. Jacob, 27, has braved hitchhiking, Russian "Jeopardy" hosts, corpulent Muscovite mavens and his own neuroses on this ancestral trek.

A century earlier, Jacob's 27-year-old Russian Jew grandfather escaped execution over his Trotsky associations to be reborn as immigrant Leo Samson. Leo's tattered memoirs have propelled Jacob to search out any living remnants of Leo's history, hoping to clarify his conflicted heritage.

Their interlaced journeys make up "Not Dead Yet" at the Elephant Performance Lab in Hollywood. Writer-performer Aaron Samson's dualistic account of Jacob and Leo across the ages is arresting, a virtuoso solo turn with the compact punch of a Pushkin poem.

Under Paul Nicolai Stein's sharp direction, Samson is a discovery, blessed with rich vocal resources, a wrestler's physical stamina and an expressive face capable of going from hilarious to harrowing on a ruble. His technique at juggling multiple personas, moods and stances is as invisible as his emotional investment is evident.

The text plays like fiction, but seems steeped in authenticity, with an assurance that approaches Geraldine Hughes' "Belfast Blues." From Jacob's first freeway-stranded phone call, through Leo's imploring arrival at Ellis Island, to the epiphany of the ending, Samson's script maintains a steady balance between mirth and tension.

Stein, Sean Phillips (sound) and Annie Terry (lighting) provide superb support for Samson's distinctive abilities. Small-scaled but incisive, "Not Dead Yet" is a wholly satisfying tour, and attendees from the culture it explores might well be overwhelmed.

*

'Not Dead Yet'

Where: Elephant Performance Lab, 1078 Lillian Way, L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays and Saturdays. Dark Sept. 16

Ends: Sept. 18

Price: $10

Contact: (323) 878-2377

Running time: 75 minutes

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