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Review: Eccentric sisters in 'Oy!' confront a shared dark history

July 02, 2012|By Charlotte Stoudt
  • Mary Eileen O'Donnell, left, and Jeanette Horn in "Oy!" at the Actors' Gang in Culver City.
Mary Eileen O'Donnell, left, and Jeanette Horn in "Oy!"… (Jean Louis Darville )

All the best stories are told in the kitchen — even the darkest ones. Think of Hélène Cixous’ “Oy!,” now at the Actors' Gang, as the rise and fall of the Third Reich as told by your eccentric aunts, who happen to be whipping up liver pâté and a little gossip.

Octogenarian sisters Selma (Mary Eileen O’Donnell) and Jenny (Jeanette Horn) have just returned from their hometown in Germany, where they were asked to speak about the Nazi era. Cooking up some nosh, they admit to each other that they didn’t exactly tell the whole truth in public.

Cixous, an icon of feminist theory, wants to take us out of the museums and even the camps, to shake up our dutifully received ideas about the Holocaust.

“Oy!” is an offhand conversation about the unspeakable, sharply performed by two engaging actresses. In the politically correct version of anti-Semitism, categories of victim and victimizer are distinct.

These sisters suggest something muddier, more unsettling. Long before 1933, teenage Jenny’s nose job was mocked in the town newspaper. And when Polish Jews escaping pogroms sought shelter with their German brethren, “we gave them train tickets the next town,” deadpans Selma.

Director Georges Bigot, a key influence on the Actor's Gang aesthetic, delivers unmistakably European theater here: the emphasis lies on the mise-en-scène, not narrative; on history, not suspense. Karyl Newman’s functional kitchen set contrasts eerily with Lauren Wemischner’s spooky lighting, as if just beyond the stage, something horrific looms.

Bigot adds a prologue of newsreels from the '20s and '30s, presumably to set the piece in context, but the footage merely delays the central pleasure of  “Oy!”: the interplay between the two sisters. Bickering, dancing or chopping onions, they bear witness to how “normal” racism slides into genocide. The sisters’ humanity reassures; their memories do not.  

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“Oy!” Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City. 8 p.m. Thursdays, 7 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends July 28. $20. Pay-what-you-can on Thursdays. Contact: (310) 838-4264 or www.theactorsgang.com. Running time: 80 minutes.

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