By Cynthia Darling
Opening this year’s tenth anniversary season of the United Solo Theatre Festival, Janis Brenner’s profound “Inheritance: A Litany” deftly showcases the genres of dance, spoken word, comedy and opera. The production is seamless, belying Ms. Brenner’s complex interweaving of techniques. Her existential inquiry into family earned the awards for Best Production, Best Composer, and Best Lighting Design at last year’s United Solo, and its return marks an auspicious start to this year’s festival.
From the beginning, Ms. Brenner takes the litany form and riffs upon it. The show opens with an audio recording from Ms. Brenner’s childhood of her family lighting the menorah. She is not afraid to let the recording take up space and time, and clears the stage. The recorded voices of her family become the bedrock upon which her lists of mystical musings on family are born, and the use of audio rather than video makes these moments even more intimate.
As the show progresses, sound poems emerge, and Ms. Brenner’s words‑spoken on stage or conveyed through voiceover‑speed up, pause, break, dip, repeat, skip, blip and beat. She moves from declarative statements to questions about family traits and values that have been passed down to her. Her playful contrapuntal tools ask questions, talk with her, talk over her, speak in unison, interrupt her, and echo throughout the show as she ponders: What will her future be like? Can she look at her parents’ lives for answers?
In one scene, she dances in rhythm to the scratching of a recording‑as if her mind and then her body are caught in the skips. Ms. Brenner makes her mother’s catching, skipping words the through‑line of the piece. “M‑m‑m‑m‑y only words…” plays overhead as Ms. Brenner dances, all jerky movements and precision. Finally, the song ends and the skips cease, and we hear her mother: “My only words: take a five‑year old to dance class and see what happens.” The audience laughs. This show is what happens.
Ms. Brenner makes frequent use of breath in her scenes, connecting the motivation for the show to the act of breathing itself. Panting, suffocating, gasping‑her breaths are as much music as sound. Ms. Brenner, it seems, must ask questions about her inheritance‑difficult though they may be‑to bring great gusts of air to herself. And then there is her singing voice, exhibiting great range and power as she performs full songs amidst these more postmodern experiments with breath.
The comic and the awful appear side by side, as in one childhood story, in which she accidentally injures a playmate with scissors. In one audio recording, her father speaks about fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. A ticking clock in another scene pushes time forward. Snippets of her parents’ actual words, sculpted into litany form, speak for themselves: “He said, ‘In only a few more years, you’ll be able to come to elder hostels with us!’” and “She said, ‘Don’t tell your father I fell last night.’” The daughter wonders, “Will I take up chair yoga like her?” and then, plaintively, “Will I become unrecognizable like her?” After having evoked the life‑filled world of her childhood, she is alone onstage, reaching into darkness to ask the big questions.
The show does not stay in the easy shallows of family life. Ms. Brenner’s use of increasingly eerie music denotes places in her show where her questions about her family’s past threaten to expose secrets. In one scene, she sits on overturned chairs onstage, as if descending into the intimate infrastructure of her family’s history. She dips into questions about inconsistencies in family members’ stories, edging closer to truths she wasn’t meant to understand. Her poignant “Is there someone left to ask?” resonates in the stark air of the stage.
“Inheritance: A Litany” is a show of the moment. We need artists like Ms. Brenner now in this world, as she crosses genres, asks hard questions, and brings a gentleness and tenderness to her rendering of parents who were equal parts loving and exasperating, protecting and needy, known and misunderstood. We emerge emboldened, ready to create our own litanies, ready for family voices to speak.
“Inheritance: A Litany”
Written and Performed by Janis Brenner
September 19 and 28, and October 27 at 6 PM
United Solo Theatre Festival
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
CYNTHIA DARLING is a writer and teacher living in Hell’s Kitchen. A writer for NAfME’s Teaching Music magazine for many years, she also wrote for New York Family magazine. She is currently working toward an MFA in Creative Writing with the Bluegrass Writers Studio. Her fiction and nonfiction appear in Louisiana Literature, Schuylkill Valley Journal, and Wanderlust Journal.