Monday, March 7, 2016

Douglas Messerli | "The Same but Different" (on Janet Schlapkohl's My Sister)

the same but different
by Douglas Messerli

Janet Schlapkohl My Sister / Los Angeles, Odyssey Theatre / the performance I attended was the matinee on March 6, 2016

First presented in a shorter version at the LA Fringe Festival, Janet Schlapkohl’s play My Sister played January through March of this year, with its production recently extended, at Los Angeles’ Odyssey Theatre.

Schlapkohl’s play is set in the Berlin of the 1930s, so one can be assured that it is a story involving Nazi Germany. However, in this case the central (and only on-stage) characters are not Jewish nor have they been intentionally undermining Hitler’s Nationalist Socialist government. Indeed these two provincial twins, Magda and Matilde—wonderfully performed by two real-life twins, Elizabeth and Emily Hinkler—have come to the capitol to free themselves from country restrictions, hoping to perform (in Magda’s case) and to write (in Matilde’s instance). Indeed Magda, the less intellectually endowed of the two, seems quite comfortable at moments with the rising anti-Jewish sentiments and the introduction of Hitlerian Eugenics at the hospital where she works during the days as a cleaning woman.

       Despite their lack of food and finances, however, they might have survived the impending war—in fact, Magda does. The only problem is that the more perceptive of the two, Matilde, is disabled, crippled, with her left arm frozen into upright position. Any attempt to move it takes all her concentration and muscular power. It is Matilde who writes the comic skits that Magda has just begun to perform at a local lesbian cabaret.
      As the days pass, however, Hitler’s government increasingly creates new rules that begin to close down the cabarets and make performing any kind of humor more and more difficult. Matilde, who, unlike her sister, can speak English and who listens all day long as she sits in their apartment to her beloved radio, begins to realize the increasing dangers, and tries to instill what she perceives into her sister’s thinking. Magda, however, does perceive the dangers if she were actually to repeat all the jibes and jokes that Matilde has written for her to perform, and waters-down some of her material.
        And even Magda gradually begins to perceive the difficulties of surviving, particularly after she discovers that the vans presumably taking some of the disabled patients to better facilities are actually transporting them to their deaths. The sudden disappearance of one of her favorite child patients devastates her as she is forced to “pay attention”—a problem she has evidently had all through her childhood education—recognizing that her beloved sister is now in danger, particularly since the apartment manager, who knows of her condition, has himself become a Nationalist Socialist supporter.

       She is ready, in fact, to give up any career aspirations, despite the fact that she may be auditioned through her act for an a film role in one of Goebel’s movies; but Matilde insists that she continue in perusing her dreams. Since the government has now banned post-war radios, Magda insists that she also take away Matilde’s one source with the world outside, as she heads off to the performance.

      Presumably, it is the loss of that connection with the world that forces the disabled girl to attempt to follow her sister to the theater. 
      While Magda begins to present the skit, to an audience now filled with Nazi soldiers, she shifts entirely away from her original satire, singing, instead, a German folk song in which the soldiers join in singing. 
      At that very moment, so we are told by Magda in a postlude, Matilde has taken a fall down the stairs without actually hurting herself; nonetheless she is taken to the hospital and ferried way either for experimentation or extermination before Magda can even reach the hospital.

      If the ending, given Matilde’s seemingly rash decision to leave the apartment, seems somewhat contrived, we nonetheless know that eventually someone would have come to take away the “imperfect” girl. Moreover, how might she able to survive for so many years in such complete isolation? In such a fascist world, it is apparent, everyone’s dreams were dashed and people were destroyed for simply being different from others, a particularly ironic statement given that the two women are, in reality, identical twins.

Los Angeles, March 7, 2016

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