Slight of hand

June Bride" only hints at Sara Felder's juggling genius; "History of Homosexuality" plays like a series of frat-house skits Writer-performer Sara Felder's work centers...

Writer-performer Sara Felder's work centers on her experiences of being Jewish, female and lesbian — though not necessarily in that order. Her medium is juggling, and her art transforms the simple tools of her trade — and by extension, the simple facts of her life — into objects of beauty via stories that move us. June Bride, her latest solo performance piece, hints at past Felder magic, but is more anecdotal than theatrical; more like chat from a friend than the enlightening experience we've come to expect.

The show begins rather coyly: Felder flashes a gold band on the third finger of her left hand and confesses delight at being addressed as “Mrs.” We get a short lesson on Jewish weddings, particularly the reasons for breaking a wine glass. Then we get the kicker: Her mate is another woman. Since the show is subtitled “solo theater about a traditional Jewish lesbian wedding,” it's unclear whether this last bit of information is intended to surprise us, but never mind.

We settle in eagerly. Not — at least in my case — just to hear about the wedding. We settle in because Felder is a genius with her hands, and those of us who have had the pleasure of watching her juggle can hardly wait to see her do it again. We'll sit still for her wedding story, or anecdotes about how they met or even slides of her latest vacation — anything — waiting for Felder to magically suspend objects in thin air while she talks.

Like all brides-to-be, she calls Mom with her big news: The downside is her future spouse's low earning potential; “the good news is, she's Jewish.” When Felder-as-Mom expresses a preference for a male groom, the bride-to-be counters, “I had that same expectation, but I adjusted.” We hear about her intended, a woman with “a face that could launch a thousand Helens.” We hear about Felder's father, who took her jogging as a child in order to tell her he was leaving the family.

To borrow Felder's reversal of the good-news-bad-news line, the bad news is that June Bride's ratio of juggling to talk is low. The good news is that she tosses knives, balls, blocks, scarves and a crystal ball. And once she starts doing that, you forget all about the bad news.

She tosses balls to traditional klezmer music; tosses knives when describing circumcision; and uses a single crystal ball to accompany a prayer of thanksgiving to God for her partner. A violin and its quizzical “face” stand in for the personification of tradition and represent the central conflict, Felder's desire to be included in her Jewish heritage while remaining true to her lesbian self.

The problem with June Bride is not its meandering nature. It seems that all good magicians distract with some sleight-of-hand in order to deliver a payoff that will amaze, delight and possibly move us. Felder is a magician of the personal, an artist whose stories expand in their transformative moments to touch the audience and bring us to a new understanding about ourselves. That she is so good at balancing objects leads us to expect her to balance the text in an equally skillful fashion. That she does not means the show never really transcends its narrow focus to make a universal statement about society's institutions.

Personal vision is also behind political theater, but its driving interest is to convince rather than to transform. This is the millstone that eventually sinks John Fisher's A History of Homosexuality in Six Scenes, playing as a companion piece to his ongoing production, The Joy of Gay Sex.

Beginning with a pointless drag-show warmup, History is an unfocused diatribe that attempts to educate and, from time to time, to entertain. We get a few jokes to make it all go down easier, but occasional laughs — and admittedly skillful staging, also by Fisher — cannot make up for the lack of a central dramatic intention. The result is a hodgepodge that plays like a series of fraternity-house skits.

We start in ancient Greece, where we learn that “homo” and “hetero” are terms that did not exist before the 19th century. We move right along to an imagined dialogue between Jesus and Pontius Pilate in which Pilate sounds suspiciously like Barbara Walters (“Are you celibate?”; “Do you love John?”).

Lesbians get a brief nod via a visit to a wild medieval convent. Then it's back to the boys on the Elizabethan stage; the boys in the ballet; and, finally, a confused and dysfunctional sketch about a confused and dysfunctional contemporary American family. Not a pretty sight. Not very entertaining, either.

June Bride continues through April 2 at Josie's Cabaret & Juice Joint in S.F.; call 861-7933. A History of Homosexuality in Six Scenes plays through March 26 at the Bayfront Theater in S.F.; call 776-8999.

Tags: , , ,

Related Stories