By James Bartholomew
“Inheritance: A Litany” has all the right DNA for a truly spectacular solo performance. Aptly described by writer, performer, and choreographer Janis Brenner as “a poetic narrative, a dance, a play, an opera, a comic drama,” the piece is a tender examination of the lifetime of memories that link a daughter to her parents.
As its name suggests, the text of “Inheritance” consists of lists – lists of memories, habits, emotions, characteristics both genetic and learned, possessions, hopes, and fears – all of which were passed down to Brenner by her parents. That may sound potentially stale or overly personal, but those lists are intertwined with evocative dances and contemplative singing from Brenner, who breathes life into the work and makes her litany relatable and deeply compelling.
Loosely linear in its plotting, “Inheritance” begins as a voiceover detailing the heredity that made the performer who she is. “I inherited my mother’s expressions,” Brenner’s voice tells us. “Her giggling, my father’s athleticism, his sarcasm.” As we listen, Brenner interprets her parents’ gifts through dance – pointing to her nose or skin to show what was passed down to her.
The movement is elegant and precise, but also playful, as Brenner is more than willing to show off the sense of humor she’s inherited from her father. Humor plays a central role in “Inheritance,” successfully shrugging off the binds of pretention, and paving the way for the honesty and humility that make the performance shine.
Variety is the other essential component of the piece. Each list Brenner presents is accompanied by a thematically appropriate dance or song, and sometimes both. A childhood story of a painful accident is paired with a stunningly choreographed pas de deux with a partner who flings Brenner around the stage as though punctuating the immediacy of the stressful situation. Later, she uses two chairs to represent her mother and father, and moves between them while simple poetic verses detail the passing of years and the evolution of a lifelong relationship.
Wisely, the show’s focus on movement serves its deeply personal, yet thematically resonant narrative. As Brenner’s relationship with her parents changes, so, too, does her performance. When she is a child and her parents are still young, Brenner moves spryly and effortlessly around the stage. As her parents age and Brenner, now an adult, contemplates her own mortality and identity, her movement becomes slightly more contained, yet passionate and sorrowful. The result of this attention to detail is a play with perpetual momentum and expert pacing.
Indeed, dance becomes the essential medium of the piece. There is fluidity to Brenner’s movement that reflects the fluid nature of memory. The scenes Brenner paints aren’t perfect recreations of the past, but dreamlike impressions and fuzzy outlines, and that important distinction is beautifully articulated in the choreography itself.
But more than that, dance is Brenner’s way of adding to the litany. She may have inherited much from her mother and father, but dance is something unique to the performer. When she adds movement to her parents’ gifts, Brenner not only accepts her inheritance, she contextualizes it within her own sense of identity. It’s a beautiful way of illustrating the continuity between generations, and the paradoxical way our inheritance makes us truly unique.
All that juicy subtext bubbles to the surface thanks to a lovely performance by Brenner, who is able to act the part even when singing Americana folk songs or pirouetting around the stage. There’s truly nothing like it. Personal though it may be, it’s hard not to empathize with “Inheritance” and think of one’s own parents as Brenner explores her relationship to hers. Funny, clever, tragic and honest, “Inheritance” is an absolute triumph. Don’t miss it.
“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
JAMES BARTHOLOMEW is a writer and musician living in New York City. He is an administrator of the Fordham University Theatre Program and an avid lover of the arts.