By Alex Miller
An unseen narrator. The ominous, low glow of three azure halogen bulbs. A barely visible figure arranging furniture. It’s 1970, and we’re listening to a home recording of phantoms long gone, the parents of our hero: Janis Brenner.
A woman with a pixie cut and the petite stature and confidence of a dancer at home on any stage, Janis Brenner (award-winning dancer/choreographer and Artistic Director of Janis Brenner & Dancers in N.Y.), strides in front of the chairs and tables she’d set up while we listened to the audio, provided by composer/sound designer Lawrence Schober (Tea Alagić-directed “Agamemnon” and “Hi, Are You Single” by the Tony Award-winning Associate Artistic Director Laura Savia). Ms. Brenner is about to awe us with a fluidity and an organized chaos of movement that will keep us guessing.
She calls out for assistance. “You, in the front,” she says, full plié, left hand extended, in the direction of a seated gentlemen. “Me?” He says, sheepishly. The audience is amused. How could we not be? “Yes, please.”
He stands. A handsome, bearded dude with a man-bun awkwardly ambles toward her. She guides his unsteady hand over her shoulder, and instructs him to take a position behind her. He follows, albeit with much doubt, but gains confidence while Ms. Brenner recounts a traumatizing event. She speaks of an incident in which a naughty neighborhood boy interrupted her lemonade sale as a little girl. She applied a swift bit of justice with a baseball bat to the crown of his head. We gasp; we’re too surprised and engaged to pay much attention to the “audience member.”
After her partner takes his seat again, we’re invited to witness a series of vignettes that gently flow from one to the next. Very little of the production seems jarring. However, even in those moments when we are thrust into an uncomfortable position, Ms. Brenner has us exactly where she wants us. At no point did I feel entirely lost… though sometimes I was, partially.
According to her voice over the speakers:
She inherited her mother’s nose.
She inherited her father’s insomnia.
She inherited her father’s sense of humor. She giggles. So do we.
And the list continues throughout the play, just as the title promised:
Parents—lack of height.
And then… the disbursement of music is unlike any I’ve ever heard. It evokes the mood of each scene so well, I have to tip my hat to composer Jerome Begin (internationally-renowned Music Director at The Julliard School of Dance Division). His mix of moog synthesizers, piano accompaniment, and violins produces a miracle of melody showcasing a classical/hip hop/electro-dotted staccato and a long, flowing wave of pleasure your ears will thank you for.
And if that weren’t enough, Ms. Brenner herself, achieving an almost-operatic level of vocal gymnastics, lulls us into a trance through her voice over the loudspeaker and her voice onstage. As they harmonize, they produce: “Violin, Violin, Piano, Violin, Violin, Piano.”
The sounds are as urgent as the music. The tick, tick, ticking of a time bomb after her mother tells her that the “birds and the bees” means a penis penetrating a vagina. Little Janis cannot handle the disgust, and beelines and donuts across the room. “No, no. I will never do that! Never! Yuck!”
Then, near the end of the performance, we’re handed the blow that no child wants to experience. She asks the crowd, “Will I become unrecognizable like my mother?” “Will I stay the same like my father?” “Will I die too fast like my father did, or will I die too slow like my mother did?” Sadly, we cannot answer.
In the final scene, Ms. Brenner rummages through a heavy case. Inside? Her father’s Army award, received after facing the horror that was the Battle of the Bulge. Her mother’s blouse, faded wedding photos, war bonds, love letters.
This 40-minute piece is truly an experience, and I strongly encourage you to add Ms. Brenner’s memories to your litany of life events.
“Inheritance: A Litany”
Written and Performed by Janis Brenner
Oct. 4 at 7:30pm, Oct. 11 at 7:30pm, Nov. 3 at 2:00pm
Music: Jerome Begin
Performance Coach: Risa Steinberg
Lighting Design: Mitchell Bogard
Show image by Hakan Jelk, courtesy of the production
United Solo 2018
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
ALEX MILLER, a Chicago native, has been a professional writer and editor for 6 years. He joined the Navy in 2004, and served for four years in such places as Haiti, Iraq, and Somalia. He has a degree in Public Engagement from The New School, and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Forbes, The New York Daily News, and QZ, among others. He lives in Harlem.