It’s not often that you get to see twin actresses playing twins on stage. My Sister, which opened at the Odyssey Theatre this weekend after an acclaimed run at the Hollywood Fringe Festival last year, stars Elizabeth and Emily Hinkler as Matilde and Magda, twin sisters living in Germany during the rise of Hitler.
This play, written by Janet Schlapkohl and expanded from the version that caught critics’ and audiences members’ eyes at 2015’s Fringe, tells the story of pre-World War II Germany through the focused lens of Matilde and Magda, who become embroiled in the terror of the time despite their best efforts to live a quiet life. Magda, the more naive and less observant of the two, is a hospital orderly by day and an up-and-coming cabaret performer by night. Her sister, Matilde, is physically disabled to the point where she requires her sister’s care and is virtually unable to leave the apartment they share. Matilde has always been the smarter and wittier of the two, and she spends her days writing satirical sketches and jokes for her sister to perform despite the fact that she isn’t physically able to go to the cabaret and see her writing performed for a crowd. While Magda is the one out in the world every day, Matilde, who is constantly reading the news and listening to the radio, is in many ways the first to clue in to just how problematic the situation in Berlin is becoming.
While Magda and Matilde clearly love each other deeply, their lives are far from simple. Magda is exhausted by caring for her sister in addition to working long hours to make ends meet and trying to pursue the performance career she’s always dreamed of. Matilde is, understandably, frustrated—she’s frustrated that her sister refuses to perform her more political jokes, frustrated that her entire life must exist inside an apartment, and, perhaps most of all, frustrated that her sister is slow to understand how problematic the rise of the National Socialist party is.
While the Nazis’ rise to power is obviously well-documented, this play focuses on a part of their wrath that often goes unmentioned. Before bringing the Jewish to concentration camps, Nazis rounded up and executed the disabled. As Magda describes her work at the hospital, where she primarily interacts with the so-called “incurable” patients, this immediate danger for Matilde lurking outside the twins’ apartment slowly becomes clear. I felt a sense of dread throughout much of the play, even in the lighter, funnier moments (of which there were many).
The portrayal of disability in My Sister is sure to draw a lot of attention, for good reason. On the plus side, Matilde is an exceptionally well-drawn, fully developed character, and the play provides a great deal of insight into not just the struggles of daily life with disability, but an important and oft-overlooked historical period for the disabled. To her credit, Elizabeth Hinkler gives a fantastic performance in the role, for which she understandably won a Best Acting award in the first run at the Fringe Festival. Casting non-disabled actors in disabled roles, an issue the disability community refers to as “cripface,” is a controversial topic. Awards shows seem to throw statues at non-disabled actors who portray disabled characters, whereas very few projects opt to actually hire disabled actors—Breaking Bad, American Horror Story, Glee, and the current Deaf West revival of Spring Awakening are notable exceptions. I understand that the need to cast identical twins in a play complicates the casting process, but I would have liked to see a disabled actress be given the opportunity to play this wonderful role.
Overall, My Sister is a smart, moving examination of sisterhood, politics, and the way we view the world. While Magda physically cares for Matilde, in many ways Matilde also cares for Magda. Despite their struggles, the two make a great team. Multiple audience members were in tears by the end, which is understandable—you quickly become attached to both characters, and their intense love for one another is abundantly clear and surely only intensified by the Hinkler twins’ real life bond. The production, directed by Ron Sossi and Paul David Story, is taut and riveting throughout—the 95 minutes seemed to fly by, and as the tension in Berlin approaches a boiling point, so does the tension in Magda and Matilde’s lives until the play reaches its heartbreaking conclusion.
My Sister runs at the Odyssey Theatre through March 6th. Tickets range from $25-34 with $10 tickets available for four select performances on 1/22, 1/23, 2/19, and 2/24. For more information and to purchase, please visit www.OdysseyTheatre.com.