Month: June 2016

Interview: Lisa Croce

Dancer. Singer. Actress. Director. Lisa Croce is one of the most talented and entertaining performers active on the South Jersey community theatre circuit today. In spite of her very busy schedule, Ms. Croce agreed to take questions regarding her life and career. We conducted our interview via email on June 22, 2016.

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Critique Compendium: Tell us a little about yourself.

Lisa Croce: I’m really quite boring. I was raised in Voorhees, NJ. After high school I moved up to NYC to go to NYU as a musical theatre major. I lived in NY for about 10 years before moving back to the South Jersey area. I now work with numbers and rules in the mortgage biz but always keep my creative side active with my hobby of theatre, as well as writing (for my own eyes only).

Critique Compendium: What first interested you in the performing arts?

Lisa Croce: My mom enrolled me in dance classes at the age of 4. I wanted to quit basically every year but in elementary school my gym teacher encouraged my parents to keep me in dance as it would help me with my eye-hand and eye-foot coordination. When my dance teacher was hired to choreograph “The Music Man” when I was 13 years old, and encouraged all her dancers to audition, I was cast in the ensemble … and that was it. I was bit by the bug. Once bit, it’s irreversible.

Critique Compendium: When did you start performing?

Lisa Croce: Dance recitals at the age of 4. Theatre at the age of 13.

Critique Compendium: What types of things make you want to play a role? Why?

Lisa Croce: I am always interested in new challenges. When I see a role with a lot of dimensions, for instance, the opportunity to be funny but touch on an emotion or two along with it, I definitely want to dig my claws into that.

Critique Compendium: What’s been your favorite role that you’ve performed so far? Why?

Lisa Croce: Relating to the above, Debra Watts in Kimberly Akimbo was an amazing example of a funny character but she also had a heart. Trying to bring both aspects to life for the audience was a challenge I looked forward to meeting each performance.

Critique Compendium: What’s the most difficult role you’ve played? Why?

Lisa Croce: I feel much more confidence in my acting than my singing or dancing these days (age will do this!). Therefore, playing Rosie in Wedding Singer where I had to sing solo and dance was difficult for me. I needed to get out of my own head and just do it! I lean more towards plays or non-singing and dancing roles in musicals when I can.

Critique Compendium: Describe your most memorable moment on stage so far.

Lisa Croce: Yes, there are 2 if I may. The first one is the first time I played Mae Peterson in Bye Bye Birdie. There is a scene where Albert tells Mae to do something about Conrad and Mae insinuates a sexual encounter between Conrad and herself. Here I am made up and dressed up to be old and frumpy and coming onto the rock star Conrad Birdie. When I said my line, an audience member (male) let out an audible “UGH” … that made me so happy.

The 2nd one was during Guys and Dolls, I managed to get the biggest laugh of the show, every single performance, based solely off of my height (or lack thereof).

Critique Compendium: What actors have influenced you? Why?

Lisa Croce: I am constantly astounded at the talents of Meryl Streep, Robert DeNiro, Tom Hanks. While there are many talented actors out there, the three I name are so incredibly diverse and I feel like no matter what role they are asked to play, it will be done perfectly!

Critique Compendium: If you had the opportunity to work with any other actor either living or dead, who would that person be? Why?

Lisa Croce: The ones I name above of course. Idina Mendel! Can I do a love scene with Channing Tatum? HA! (Need I say why??)

Critique Compendium: What do you do when you’re not on stage? What are your hobbies and outside interests?

Lisa Croce: As mentioned I work in the mortgage biz and the rest of the time is devoted to my 10 year old daughter and her activities – dance, voice, girl scouts, drama club. I’m a single mom working full time, so the concept of “spare time” is kind of foreign to me. When I am involved in a show, it’s a complete anomaly!

Critique Compendium: How do you balance a career, family and other activities with the demands of performing in community theater productions?

Lisa Croce: Sleep? Who needs sleep? Messy house? I’ll clean it after tech week! It isn’t easy but it’s what I love to do, so I make it work. Thankfully, I have my mom around to help with my daughter A LOT – if not for her, I probably wouldn’t be able to do theatre.

Critique Compendium: How do you prepare for a role?

Lisa Croce: Once I’ve read a script several times, I want to understand what my character is feeling. When possible, I try to relate my character’s situation to my own life, or of someone I know. I try to find the same feelings within me that the character is feeling, even if it’s from a completely different situation. As for learning lines, it’s a matter of repetition. I read them, I write them, I speak them, I record them and play them back to myself. They are constantly in my head. Often times I’ll randomly speak some out loud. Actors are weird!!!!

Critique Compendium: What do you bring to your roles that other performers don’t?

Lisa Croce: Oh, I don’t know. I have a great comedic timing. My look is unique.

Critique Compendium: What’s the most difficult part of performing in front of a live audience?

Lisa Croce: It doesn’t matter how many times I do it, every night is a new set of jitters when “places” is called. Will I remember my lines? Will I trip and fall on my face? Will I hit all the notes (if singing) or remember all the steps (if dancing)? Will they like it? Will they laugh where they are supposed to laugh and cry where they are supposed to cry and clap where they are supposed to clap? The actors definitely feed off of the energy of the audience. Every audience is different and therefore every performance is different. You never really know what you’re going to be facing until you get there.

Critique Compendium: How would you like audiences to remember you?

Lisa Croce: Hilarious of course! “Remember that short girl who played (whoever) … she was so funny!”

Critique Compendium: If I asked people with whom you’ve performed what it was like working with you, what would they tell me?

Lisa Croce: They would tell you that Lisa keeps her drama on the stage. That I have zero tolerance for divas, drama and BS. We are all doing this as volunteers. It’s supposed to be fun. When it stops being fun, is the day I hang it up! Believe it or not, I’m actually slightly on the shy side until I get to know people. Then I’m fun, funny, and easy to work with. Oh, and very self-depreciating but will build everyone else up incessantly.

Critique Compendium: What advice would you give to young people interested in participating in the performing arts?

Lisa Croce: Go and have fun with it. Try different companies, different types of shows, etc. Volunteer to help with as much as you can – sets, lights, sound, costumes – try to learn all aspects of it. Audition even when you don’t think there’s a role for you – you never know what the director wants. (Prime example is me playing Big Jule in Guys and Dolls. This is a role typically played by a large male. He’s a gangster. When 4’11” me shows up in this role, hilarity ensues.) Most importantly, don’t take it personally. When you’re not cast in a role it stinks. When you know you’d be better than the person who was cast, it stinks even more. It will happen though. Why? It’s not about you. It’s about the director’s vision. Directors go into auditions with ideas and visions already established. If you don’t fit what they see, it doesn’t matter how talented you are, it just won’t work.

Critique Compendium: What adjective would best describe your theater career?

Lisa Croce: Improving (as I get older I fit more roles that I look right for.)

Critique Compendium: Barbara Walters famously asked Katherine Hepburn: “What kind of tree would you want to be?” Let me ask you this: If you were a tree, in what forest would you like to be located?

Lisa Croce: Can I be a palm tree on a beach? The beach is my happy place. The ocean is peaceful. That’s where I’d like to be.

Critique Compendium: What’s next for you?

Lisa Croce: One Flew Over the Writer’s Block one act festival goes up this weekend. Bye Bye Birdie (2nd chance to play Mae Peterson) opens July 14th. Auditions for Brighton Beach Memoirs are also in July. After that (if cast) I will need a break. I will be directing for the first time in April 2017. It’s a poignant dramedy, Making God Laugh, at Bridge Players in Burlington.

 

 

Book Review – Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich

In her latest work, 2015 Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich explored the lives of those who personally experienced the Soviet Union’s demise. As with her other books, she allowed those who lived the events to tell the story. Reflections of anxiety, anger and disillusionment populated this troubling tome. A very unsettling portrayal of both the Communist and post-glasnost era emerged.

A line from Russian author Alexander Grin inspired the title. Ms. Alexievich observed:

On the eve of the 1917 Revolution, Alexander Grin wrote, ‘And the future seems to have stopped standing it its proper place.’ Now, a hundred years later, the future is, once again, not where it ought to be. Our time comes to us secondhand.” (Page 9)

Not surprisingly, both the author and her subjects expressed a hellish portrayal of life under communist rule. In the opening chapter–titled “Remarks from an Accomplice”– Ms. Alexievich explained her own views. She wrote, “People didn’t recognize their own slavery—they even liked being slaves.” (Page 2) “Many greeted the truth as an enemy. And freedom as well.” (Page 3) “Everyone thought of themselves as a victim, never a willing accomplice.” (Page 4) She best summarized the overall tone of the book in the following statement:

People are constantly forced to choose between having freedom and having success and stability; freedom with suffering or happiness without freedom. The majority chose the latter. (Page 8)

That’s a very unsettling observation; especially when the true picture of Soviet life emerged.

The Soviet State ruled through fear. I thought the best observation came from the interviewee who said, “Everyone was afraid, even the people that everyone was afraid of.” (Page 47) To show the pervasive anxiety the government instilled in citizens, another person said, “”I just hope they don’t put me away for telling you all this. Is the Soviet government still in power or is it entirely gone?” (Page 84) One person added a bit of dark humor to his take on the time period. “A communist is someone who’s read Marx, an anticommunist is someone who’s understood him.” (Page 16)

Not all the negative aspects of Soviet conduct were the government’s responsibility. One person reminisced about a disturbing incident during the “Great Patriotic War”:

Hundreds of Jews who’d escaped from the ghettos had gone into the forest. Peasants would capture them and give them up to the Germans in exchange for a bag of flour or a kilogram of sugar. Write that down…I’ve held my silence for long enough…A Jew spends his whole life afraid. No matter where the stone falls it hits him. (Page 194)

The most notable story regarded a soldier who worked as an executioner for the regime. One of the interviewees related the following anecdote that someone had shared with him. Aside from the psychological trauma, killing for the State had some physical repercussions, as well.

At first, we couldn’t meet our quotas. We physically couldn’t do it. So they called some doctors in. Had a consultation. It was decided that two days a week, the troops would get massages. They’d massage our right hands and index fingers. They absolutely had to massage our index fingers because they’re under the greatest strain during the shooting. My only work related injury is that I’m deaf in my right ear from shooting from the right side…” (Page 276)

From these narratives one would anticipate the collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in a halcyon era for those who suffered under its repression. Sadly, events didn’t develop that way. “Today, no one has time for feelings, they’re all out making money. The discovery of money hit us like an atom bomb.” (Page 18) “Democracy! That’s a funny word in Russia. ‘Putin the Democrat’ is our shortest joke.” (Page 290) “Capitalism isn’t taking root here. The spirit of capitalism is foreign to us. It never made it out of Moscow. We don’t have the proper climate for it in the rest of the country.” (Page 291)

While Ms. Alexievich drew material for the book from a series of oral histories, she managed to incorporate a number of memorable lines into the text.”[Her voice suddenly drops to a whisper. But to me, it feels like she’s screaming.]” (Page 142) “And the truth is…I worked at an archive myself, I can tell you firsthand: Paper lies even more than people do.” (Page 169) “Our entire tragedy lies in the fact that our victims and executioners are the same people.” (Page 261) And the most chilling, “The axe will survive the master.” (Page 276)

I came away from Secondhand Time with a new respect for the former Soviet Union’s people. I have immense admiration for their capacity to endure hardship. The author concluded the book with first hand observations on the political situation in her home nation, Belarus. If that is any harbinger of things to come, the past will once again be prologue for the former Soviet Union’s people.

Theatre Review – Proof at Burlington County Footlighters Second Stage

Based on data accumulated over the years, I’ve developed a hypothesis that Burlington County Footlighters’ Second Stage possesses a formula for excellent shows. This derivative is congruent with the mode of an outstanding theatre company. I figured the probability of them continuing to do so variable in proportion to their locus of material. Their operation has proved my theory many times, but the outcome usually defies logic. The product they delivered in the form of Proof took their reputation to another plane.

I had the opportunity to evaluate this event on its opening night June 17th. I’m pleased to write that my reflection will not be a mean one. That’s a good ‘sine.’ Director Jillian Starr-Renbjor’s translation of the text into a stage production made for a terrific outcome.

I enjoyed the plot’s complexity. There seemed no limit to the quantity of conflict. Catherine (played by Rachel Comenzo) struggled to cope with her father’s death, her abrasive sister’s badgering her to move to New York, and the professional and possibly personal interests of one of her father’s former students. All this drama may seem unequal to the boundaries of a two hour show. But there was more. At the midpoint the play centered on Catherine’s revelation of an oblique proof of unknown origin: one that could revolutionize the field of mathematics.

When I discovered that Rachel Comenzo would be playing the role of a ‘math geek’ it didn’t add up. Much to her credit, the moment the show opened, she became the character. While the large glasses, sweat suit and hair worn back fit Catherine’s appearance, Ms. Comenzo became her. I liked her utilization of quick dialog and snappy swearing. The way she’d pause and with a wry smile sarcastically reply to Claire’s (played by Betty Moseley) strained questioning showed exceptional artistic aptitude. In the scenes prior to Catherine’s father passing away she adjusted her speaking to a more deliberate pace. Emile Zola once observed that: “To be an artist requires the gift. To have the gift requires hard work.” Ms. Comenzo showed me that she took the time to really understand and immerse herself in the character.

Watching Ms. Comenzo in a role this complex was the key feature of this run. In the past I’ve watched her play Bonnie (in Bonnie and Clyde), Morticia (in The Addams Family: A New Musical Comedy) and Curley’s wife (in Of Mice and Men).  I found all of those characters to be one-dimensional, but the strength of Ms. Comenzo’s performances made every one of them interesting and memorable. I wondered how she would play a strong, multi-dimensional character. Her performance proved she was equal to the task. It’s a struggle for me to find the proper superlatives to describe how well she brought Catherine to life.

DJ Hedgepath once again showed why the theatre is his prime domain. As expected, this thespian displayed his superior range as a performer. Hal’s character required him to display the traits of a nervous suitor, a studious mathematician and a person with questionable motives; at least in the other characters’ perceptions. Mr. Hedgepath convincingly depicted them all.

As they function so well together, I welcomed the opportunity to watch Ms. Comenzo and Mr. Hedgepath share the same stage again. The contrasts between their characters allowed their reciprocal skills to feed off one another. She playing the intellectual struggling with powerful inner demons, he as her father’s ambitious former student. In Proof these opposites became an ordered pair. Their enactments showed why these two masters are fast becoming icons on the South Jersey Community Theatre circuit.

Becky Moseley delivered a solid performance as Claire. Her character couldn’t seem to get along with anybody except a few partying mathematicians, but I really enjoyed watching her. I liked her performance best during her first scene with Ms. Comenzo. The way Ms. Moseley established tension through her delayed delivery and short questions made the dialog reminiscent of Harold Pinter. I felt uncomfortable listening to her interrogation. That’s the kind of emotional response great performers bring about in audience members.

Bernard Dicasimirro took on the challenging role of Robert: a brilliant mathematician who deteriorated into a mentally imbalanced man. I always applaud performers who select these types of characters. In a sense one has to play two distinctly unique personalities during the same evening. Just like a well-educated intellectual Mr. Dicasimirro spoke very professionally and calmly in his lucid scenes. Then he ranted like a madman while explaining his groundbreaking proof to Catherine. I’d read the play, but I even jumped when he ordered Catherine to read it.

Some unnerving statistics bothered me about this show. The set had a smaller surface area than the mainstage at Footlighters, but it still seemed unequal to the lack of people in the audience. Aside from myself, I noticed only two other people who aren’t community theater performers in South Jersey. I read Proof before I saw it on the stage. While the prospect of going out on Friday or Saturday night to watch a play about math may not sound like a great option, it does explore a great human drama.

A dedicated cast and crew with the addition of a great director factor into all of BCF Second Stage’s presentations. Upon reflection I’ve found that in all probability a normal show for them will contain great emotional power; the origin of which will be the degree of talent from the combination of the performers. Their presentation of David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize Winning play wasn’t an outlier. The frequency Footlighters’ Second Stage puts on such dramas is the difference. The volume of their quality of work gives them a unique angle. The $10 price tag made this showing an absolute value. For those needing an entertaining evening out in the Cinnaminson area this June, I’d rate seeing Proof the best solution to that problem.

 

Book Review – Me before You by Jojo Moyes

Jojo Moyes crafted an exceptional tale of characters suffering from traumas both visible and invisible in Me before You. In the process she may have written the most unconventional love story every created. The tale also included some unexpected plot developments. A heart warming and heartrending read resulted.

I don’t typically read romantic dramedies so I didn’t know quite what to expect when I began this book. While I had some issues with it I thought both the story and main characters outstanding.

The author introduced readers to twenty six year old Louisa (aka Lou), “an ordinary girl, leading an ordinary life.” This suited her “fine.” (Location 346) Her boyfriend, Patrick, took her for granted. Her family favored her older sister. The story began as Lou lost her job working at a café. (It’s hard to imagine a more “ordinary life” than this in the modern era.) Through an employment service she managed to unexpectedly end up with a job caring for Will: a quadriplegic. This character lived the life of a playboy, extreme sport enthusiast and corporate raider. He experienced an ideal life until his motorcycle accident.

While people who haven’t read the book will no doubt wonder how someone with no medical training obtained a job caring for someone in Will’s condition, I won’t give away spoilers. I would point out that during the interview process Will’s mother, Mrs. Traynor, emphasized how Lou’s previous employer described her “warm, chatty and life-enhancing presence.” (Location 408) These characteristics served as an outstanding contrast to Will’s bitter, surly attitude in the novel.

I give Ms. Moyes great credit for developing the relationship between these oppositional characters as well as she did. Her prose made it seem natural and unforced. That’s a great accomplishment in such an unconventional love story.

In the course of reading Me before You, I hated putting it down. The author hooked me into wondering what would happen next. It’s a testament to the story’s strength that I recalled many of its details close to a month after reading it. It’s ironic that my main criticisms regard how poorly the author wrote it.

The book contained some clichés. The most egregious took place when Will’s former fiancé and his best friend decided to get married. I understand that the author needed to establish how miserable Will’s new life became for him, but this was just too formulaic for me. Some other clichés included when Lou described Mrs. Traynor’s “knuckles were white on the arm of the sofa.” (Location 1641) While the author presented every chapter but one from a character’s point-of-view, I thought the expression “spoiling for a fight” even too banal for a modern person to use in speech.

I also didn’t like the point-of-view changes. I’d estimate that 90% of the narration came from Lou’s perspective. I thought the ones from Mr. Traynor, Mrs. Traynor, Nathan (Will’s “professional” caregiver) and Treena (Lou’s sister) unnecessary. They broke the narrative flow, as well. I would also add that each of these characters only narrated one chapter each. I had trouble following the one from Treena’s point-of-view due to excessive use of pronouns. I couldn’t tell if she or Lou were the one speaking. It’s never good when a reader has to return and re-read the same passage several times.

I thought the author resorted to telling far too often. I couldn’t visualize how Lou “pulls a face.” (Location 100) Lou made a remark that, “It took almost forty minutes for Will’s temperature to return to an acceptable level.” (Location 1277) It made me curious as to what constituted an “acceptable level”. After a crucial conversation between Lou and Will’s mother, the former observed, “It was almost eleven minutes before I finally heard Mrs. Traynor’s car start up and drive away.” (Location 1943) I couldn’t believe Lou had counted them.

While I hate making this point, I found some of the writing just plain lousy. Following a rain storm, “The roads are slick with water.” (Location 127) What else would make them “slick” following a shower? The author began chapter 4 with the sentence “Two weeks passed.” (Location 735) A published author once termed expressions like that as “lazy writing” to me. Lou called Patrick’s description of the “Xtreme Viking Triathalon”: “The Viking was spoken about with reverence.” (Location 922) Not only did the author use passive voice, I doubt anyone would express herself like that in real life.

To be fair, the author did include some outstanding lyrical flourishes. I liked reading about the “pastel-colored wallpaper paste” (Location 742) and the alliteration of the “buds burst from brown branches.” (Location 1474) The chapter from Mrs. Trayor’s point-of-view contained an excellent use of a garden for symbolism.

It was only when we brought Will back home, once the annex was adopted and ready, that I could see a point in making it (the garden) beautiful again. I needed to give my son something to look at. I needed to tell him, silently, that things might change, grow, or fail, but life did go on. That we were all part of some great cycle, some pattern that it was only God’s purpose to understand. I couldn’t say that to him, of course—Will and I have never been able to say much to each other—but I wanted to show him. A silent promise, if you like, that there was a bigger picture, a brighter future. (Location 1724)

The strengths of Me before You far exceeded its shortcomings. For those, like me, who aren’t particularly interested in “love stories”: don’t let the “romance” element dissuade you from reading. I’d recommend to those interested in a moving tale with memorable characters. Just make sure you have some free time available before beginning. I found putting the book down before finishing the most challenging aspect of it.