The truly remarkable play, My Sister, currently in production at Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles, tells the tale of identical twins trying to make a go of it in Berlin as the National Socialists rose to power in the Germany of the 1930s. The sisters, Magda (Emily Hinkler) and Matilde (Elizabeth Hinkler) eke out a bare existence in a one room flat with a toilet down the hall. Magda dreams of the stage while serving in a hospital as a charwoman scrubbing floors, while Matilde stays home and writes satirical sketches for her sister to perform in a lesbian leaning cabaret. Damaged at birth with a condition that makes it profoundly difficult to move about, Matilde is nevertheless a bright, cheerful soul who takes great joy when her sister gets her chance to perform. The young women are devoted to each other with poignant intimacy.
It may be less well known that Jews were not the only victims of the Nazis’ scheme to purify the Nordic “race.” Political opponents, homosexuals, gypsies and other undesirables were rounded up and sent off to internment and eventual death. Those with disabilities, physical or mental, were taken away in black vans for “treatment” never to be seen again. The population in general may have been blind to this horror, but it soon became apparent to those that knew and loved the victims. The clues embedded in the script by playwright Janet Schlapkohl give the audience a foreknowledge that makes the performance extraordinarily gripping.
The play compresses time with references to the Reichstag fire (1933), which gave Hitler the excuse to do away with constitutional liberties, and Leni Riefenstahl’s dark masterpiece Triumph of the Will (1935). Later in the play a sound cue of glass breaking suggests the horror of Kristallnacht (1938), the night of coordinated destruction of Jewish shops and businesses.
Emily Hinkler’s Magda is a vivacious cabaret singer (accompanied by Barbara Rottman at the piano) with a painted-on pencil mustache singing off-color lyrics lampooning men. She cares deeply for her sister in the most intimate of ways. As a person who has come to terms with her disability, Elizabeth Hinkler, is a joy to behold. Determined to be a literary artist in her right, she reveals a questing mind. She loves her radio that gives her the world and begs her sister for magazines to keep her current. She can be sharp and cranky too, as anyone would be. Together or separate, the Hinkleys are spellbinding. They skillfully render touching moments of tension and tenderness.
An adjunct professor at the University of Iowa, Ms. Schlapkohl wrote the play with the identical Hinkler twins, who were undergraduates in the theatre department, in mind. The show has had several productions, first at the University in 2013 and two other venues in Iowa. Last June, the Hinklers were each given the Duende Distinction Award for Acting at the Hollywood Fringe Festival.
Co-directed by Ron Sossi and Paul David Story, the production is well mounted in the limited space of Odyssey’s TR3, with an excellent set by Pete Hickok and lighting by Derrick McDaniel. Christopher Moscatiello’s sound design is superb.
My Sister runs through March 6 at Odyssey Theatre, 2055 Sepulveda Blvd. in Los Angeles.