The second-most frightening thing Sara Felder has ever done on stage is juggling three swords while balancing on a teeterboard. The most frightening: speaking about Israel.
Felder does both in her one-woman show, “Out of Sight,” which makes its West Coast debut in a four-week run at the Marsh in San Francisco, starting Jan. 13.
The teeter-totter symbolism makes sense, as the play tells the story of Felder’s wobbly relationship with her late mother — a legally blind, fiercely pro-Israel woman often at odds with her leftist lesbian daughter.
It’s a love story, says Felder.
In the show Felder takes on multiple characters, including her first lesbian girlfriend and her former Israeli folk dance partner, who becomes Orthodox and moves to Israel. Mostly, she portrays her mother and herself, peeling back the layers of their relationship. And there are shadow puppets and juggling.
Felder says that throughout her 25 years in the theater, she has addressed “topics that related to balancing my Jewish American queer identity,” but had somehow avoided one crucial issue.
“I had never talked about Israel,” she says, “and it started feeling a little troubling. Also the story of my mother’s blindness had been haunting me since childhood. I wondered if that story was my way in to talk about Israel.”
What she says about Israel might discomfit long-time supporters of the Jewish state.
As depicted in “Out of Sight,” Felder was raised to revere Israel unreservedly. As a college student, she spent her junior year in Israel.
That’s when she started to see the country for herself, warts and all, no longer captive to her mother’s rigid boosterism. Felder (the character) becomes an activist, protesting what she sees as Israeli excesses when it comes to its treatment of the Palestinians. She even gets arrested at an anti-Israel demonstration.
In real life, Felder notes, “My mother told me never to criticize Israel in public. I was very dutiful about that. I really respected her position on it, even though I disagreed about her position on airing dirty laundry.”
The play’s criticism of Israeli policies, while important, is secondary to the mother-daughter relationship at the heart of the play.
Felder’s mother was legally blind since childhood from having stared at a solar eclipse. Yet she says her greatest regret in life was not losing her eyesight, but staying home from a protest over FDR’s refusal to accept a boatload of European Jewish refugees.
Over the course of the play, Sara struggles to find herself, both as a lesbian and as a questioning Jew. Shadow puppets (designed by Morgan FitzPatrick Andrews) elevate the theatricality, as does Felder’s juggling (whether using sheer scarves, a single lemon or the aforementioned scimitars).
“I knew I would only have success with the play if I centered on the relationship with the mother-daughter, with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the background,” she says. “I wanted to be careful to keep it a story about the war at home: How does this conflict affect this family?”
In the end, Felder signals to the audience that blindness may be in the eye of the beholder.
“Out of Sight” marks Felder’s return to the Bay Area stage after several years in Philadelphia. She had moved east from the Bay Area while her partner, Rabbi Dev Noily, completed her rabbinic studies and ordination there. Noily is now director of the school at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont. The couple lives in Oakland.
Launching her career with the Pickle Family Circus, Felder has always incorporated juggling into her plays, which include “A Queer Divine” and “June Bride,” a lesbian wedding tale that proved to be Felder’s biggest hit — she’s been performing the show for 13 years.
But “Out of Sight” tops her agenda now.
“Besides being a love story it’s a coming of age story,” she says of the new show. “At one point you look at yourself and question what your parents taught you. How dangerous is that moment?”
For Felder, representing it on stage by juggling knives, the moment can be fraught with danger, even for a juggler as skilled as she.
Adds Felder, “The tricks get harder every year.”
Sara Felder’s “Out of Sight” plays through Feb. 13 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., S.F. Tickets: $15-$50. Information: (415) 826-5750 or www.themarsh.org.