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Jewish Journal

Balancing the seen and unseen is a juggling act

by Naomi Pfefferman

May 8, 2008 | 6:00 pm

In the defining moment of Sara Felder's performance piece, "Out of Sight" -- about a mother and daughter who clash over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- she juggles machetes while precariously balancing on a rola bola.

"There's danger in trying to 'see' someone you [oppose], and in being seen," says Felder, who brings her semiautobiographical monologue combining storytelling, vaudeville and circus arts to the Skirball Cultural Center May 21 and 23. "The show is about whether we can have an intimate relationship with someone with whom we sharply disagree, how we can ask questions and open up dialogue."

Felder manipulates shadow puppets to create images of seeing and not seeing throughout the show, which is partly inspired by her own arguments with her late mother.

"I tell the true story of how my mother lost her eyesight as a girl by staring too long at a solar eclipse," Felder says. "She was so transfixed she couldn't look away, even though her eyes hurt, and for that she paid a terrible price. All my life I have been haunted by that story, and I thought it would be a good way to approach the metaphors in the play."

Felder began writing the piece several years ago when she realized she had never discussed Israel in a play, despite decades of dissecting her Jewish and lesbian identities onstage. The politically progressive Felder says she remained silent out of respect for her mother, Francis, a passionate Zionist who had come of age during the Holocaust.

"When asked about her regrets in life, my mother would never say, 'It was the day I looked into the sun -- she would say it was the day she did not chain herself to the fence to protest President Roosevelt's policies about Jewish refugees from Hitler."

After refugees aboard a German trans-Atlantic liner were turned away by the Roosevelt administration and forced to return to Nazi Germany, Francis Felder vowed to support Israel so Jews would always have a safe haven. Sara Felder grew up in a proudly Zionist household, and, while at UC Berkeley, eagerly signed up to spend a school year in Israel.

"It was right after the Camp David accords, a quote-unquote peaceful, optimistic time," the artist recalls. "Then on a class trip to Gaza, this Palestinian kid threw a stone at the bus. In the play, I tell the tale as if he threw it directly at me, because that's how I experienced it. It was just a small moment, but it completely changed my perspective." Felder sought to learn about the Arab perspective and came to feel that "everything my mother had taught me was wrong. Or at least, incomplete."

In the play, Felder uses a balancing trick (invented by W.C. Fields) to build a block wall while describing the rift between the fictional mother and daughter.

"When I create a show, I look for objects that can tell the story more efficiently than words ever could," she says.

Now 49, Felder learned to juggle in college and as a member of the Pickle Family Circus in San Francisco. She incorporated the craft into her own monologues when she discovered that viewers "would listen to whatever I said, so long as I was juggling; it opened people up to different points of view."

As for juggling knives, she says she's only bled once onstage: "As soon as a machete leaves your hand, you know if it's a good throw or not, and you can decide whether to stick out your other hand to catch it or to let it fall to the floor."

Felder has juggled everything from boom boxes to latkes (which she says are harder than machetes, because they're greasy) in solo shows such as "June Bride," which is loosely based on her own Jewish lesbian wedding.

Tossing machetes on a rola bola could described how she sees much of her work. "I like to explore the balancing act of being Jewish in America today," she says.

Sara Felder will also deliver a lecture, "From Fanny Brice to Woody Allen to You: A Short History of Jewish Humor," on May 22. For information about her lecture and performances, visit www.skirball.org.

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