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Juggling Act

Sara Felder keeps a lot of balls in air in this coming of age story

Sara Felder juggles expectations.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 12/9/2009

Out Of Sight

By Sara Felder

Through Dec. 13 At the Theatre Project

At one point during her delightful, one-woman show at the Theatre Project, Out of Sight, Sara Felder describes the first time she fell in love. It happened when she was a college student from Brooklyn volunteering in Israel in the late '70s. Gail, a fellow volunteer with a thick Carolina accent, knocked the young Sara off her feet, and Felder comically impersonates the slack-jawed dopiness that often accompanies such an infatuation.

But the scene captures the pure lyricism of first love when the actress plucks a rubber ball from a basket and begins to roll it across her knuckles and palms like the expert juggler she is. That spinning ball, which seems to be floating on waves of fluttering hands, seems as buoyant as a young girl in love. The actress never points out how much the ball's pinkness resembles the heart on a Valentine's Day card. She doesn't have to.

Long before she became the writer/performer of such shows as Out of Sight and June Bride (which came to the Theatre Project in 2007), Felder was a professional clown with San Francisco's Pickle Family Circus. Juggling and slapstick were the first theatrical skills she acquired, and they're still her strengths. Her tricks would be entertaining without any context, in the same way that hitting a curve ball and tumbling off a balance beam need no help to impress us.

But as we get drawn into her coming-of-age story and her monologues about her complicated relationship with her almost-blind, overly dramatic, opera-loving mother, her hyperactive best friend in high school, and Israel itself, the tricks take on a new, revealing resonance. It's not just the way a gravity-defying pink ball resembles a racing heart; it's the way three yellow lemons become a children's fable about World War II or nine cardboard bricks become the boundary between Israel and the Gaza Strip.

When Felder and her best friend Norman first arrive in Israel, they believe they're in the promised land. Felder has a weakness as well as a gift for Borscht Belt stand-up comedy, and she has Norman explain what he likes best about Israel: When the grocery-store cashier is really snide and sarcastic to you, you know it's not because you're Jewish. Gail, on the other hand, is less enchanted with the new Jewish nation, pointing out that Jerusalem's support for segregated refugee camps in Gaza and for the apartheid government in Johannesburg is inconsistent with Jewish ideals.

Before long, the young Felder finds herself torn between her blind Zionist mother and her sexy but strident girlfriend. The pressure builds and builds until she feels like she's trying to juggle three sharp swords as she stands on a small board balanced on a piece of pipe as it rolls across a larger board suspended between two chairs. At the Theatre Project, that's literally what she's doing. Once again, she has found a circus act to perfectly illustrate her inner turmoil.

Felder, a short, athletic woman with frizzy brown hair, a black shirt, and faded jeans, begins the show with a black chair, a red purse, a basket of lemons, a pile of blocks on a barstool, a pipe full of swords, and a sparkly maroon curtain. With no other set or performers, she takes us to Brooklyn, Russia, Israel, and Gaza and introduces us to her friends and mother. She creates a whole world out of a trunk of circus props.

Felder is a good actress, but not a great one, and at times the show becomes more prosaic that it should, as if she were telling us about her life rather than reliving it. But these lulls are always soon ended by another inspired bit of vaudeville. If it's not a juggling trick, it's a Rodney Dangerfield-like joke. If it's not a joke, it's a shadow-puppet show about her mother's childhood in Russia--with a horrible/wonderful pun about pogroms and pilgrims.

It's the sheer physicality of these bits--the swords spinning in the air, the arms spreading to deliver a punch line, the sticks manipulating the black silhouette of a Russian Cossack as he rides across the steppe--that register with the audience. It's the kind of visceral impact that small theater can deliver and no screen can ever replicate.

In addition to her three remaining performances of Out of Sight, Felder will also present a lecture, "From Fanny Brice to Woody Allen to You: A Short History of Jewish Humor," Thursday evening and will lead a workshop, "Creating Solo Performance: Amusing the Muse (Or, the Art of Juggling the Truth)," Saturday afternoon--all at the Theatre Project.

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