LOS ANGELES — When sisters Elizabeth and Emily Hinkler take the stage at the Odyssey Theater in Los Angeles, they transport the audience to Berlin in the pre-Nazi years of the Weimar Republic, and the dark days that were to lie ahead.
Identical twins in life and in character, the pair share the simple, but charming set of their fictional apartment, as well as that of a cabaret act that the German siblings Magda (Emily) performs and the home-bound Matilde (Elizabeth) writes. As their two-woman show “My Sister” unfolds, the pair leads us on a chilling journey to the rise of totalitarianism, eugenics and other horrors of the Nazi era.
As the play develops, it becomes increasingly clear that Matilde, who was born with cerebral palsy, is in danger from the threats lurking outside their cozy home. The two must survive on wits, meager rations and hopes of living “immer zusammen,” the German refrain for “always together” which they repeat throughout the play with as much affection as a sibling says, “I love you.”
The strength of the play, says playwright Janet Schlapkohl, who is not Jewish, is the “relationship between the sisters, in the play and in life.”
“My Sister” is the brainchild of Schlapkohl, who spent about a year on the first draft as a student in the Iowa Playwrights Workshop, a master’s program at the University of Iowa. She wrote it specifically for the Hinkler twins, then college juniors.
At 4’11”, the pair, who were born premature, are tiny. But on stage, they radiate. Magda delivers as a cabaret artist and Matilde shines with wit and a convincing, palsied posture, defiantly listening to her friend, a contraband shortwave radio she refers to as a “she.”
The material transformed through 75 drafts and revisions before the twins performed it on campus in 2013. About a year later, they moved west and, producing it themselves for the local Fringe Festival, where director Paul David Story took the helm. The sisters won the Duende Distinction award for acting and an Encore Producers Award, which led it to the Odyssey.
During the Fringe Festival, the Hinklers promoted “My Sister” to the United Cerebral Palsy of Los Angeles, retirement homes, and organizations for Holocaust survivors and twins. Under the Odyssey’s artistic director, Ron Sossi, who co-directs with Paul David Story, the Odyssey recently extended the show through March 20.
With the ongoing success of her play, Schlapkohl discusses her depiction of 1932 Berlin with The Times of Israel.
What inspired you to write “My Sister”?
While teaching a class at the university, I found that much of the Nazi-era history, though not forgotten, was not understood and many individuals were not known at all. For example, if I’d ask, ‘Who was Dr. Mengele? Himmler? Goering?’ they [her students] had no idea. They were able to box up the history, ‘Those were Nazis,’ as if [they] were a foreign species, a different sort of human, something that couldn’t possibly happen again, something belonging to the past and thus easily disposed of. This had alarming elements.
What about this subject matter fascinates you?
The massive scale of cruelty. The adoption of cruelty as a socially accepted norm. I am fascinated by the era for the same reasons that most people are; the struggle to answer questions: ‘How could it have happened? What were they thinking? Why did they hate so much? What allows people to be influenced by propaganda?’ And I don’t want to be afraid to ask myself, ‘What about me? What could influence me, what or whom do I hate and why?’ And I listen to the news and I worry when I hear things that echo that distant bell.
What do you hope “My Sister” conveys to audiences?
I want to make us consider how we view others. I want the audience to think about their own perceptions, and the conclusions we make before getting to know someone.
What has surprised you about public response to the play?
‘I was surprised at the actors’ ability to go to the dark edges of their personalities’
Nothing has really, because I have been watching it grow with Emily and Elizabeth. I saw what they were capable of, and was certain audiences would respond to their characters and their relationship. The play grew leaps and bounds at the Fringe under the direction of Paul David Story. When I saw the play again after seeing it last at the Quad Cities Theatre Workshop, I was surprised at the actors’ ability to go to the dark edges of their personalities in bringing the characters to life.
What has the play’s success revealed to you?
It shows that people are still interested in history, even when the outcome is surmised or known. I think it may trigger an interest in the history of the treatment of the disabled in Germany at that time. I hope it demonstrates an interest in understanding someone with a disability.
What is next for “My Sister” and for you?
We hope to find someone who is interested in producing a longer version as a film. For that I am looking at finding another screenwriter and we are looking for a producer. We hope the play will be picked up by additional theaters, to travel, hopefully to the East Coast.
I am working on two different plays. One is called, “Also the Rhino” and the other is a one-woman show, “Without Tigers.” I hope to have one ready for a first performance by summer.