Fordham’s experimental theater widens profile during summer festivals

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Much of the original cast of My Personal Hell has returned for the Fringe performances.

There’s a very simple reason why Jonathan O’Neill, FCRH ’15, wrote the play My Personal Hell.

“I really like murder mysteries,” O’Neill said. “At the start of sophomore year I read Death on the Nile, and I wanted to write something similar to that.”

This passion for Agatha Christie has paid off. My Personal Hell, featuring a cast and crew made up entirely of Fordham students, is playing at the New York International Fringe Festival, the largest multi-arts festival in North America, from Aug. 10-24.

The play, which premiered at the Blackbox as part of Fordham Experimental Theater’s spring 2014 season to rave reviews (written by this author), centers on Tucker Tomkins, a journalist in the fictional town of Carraway Falls who is killed while investigating a story and must solve his own murder to escape purgatory. The suspects include the mayor, her husband, Tucker’s girlfriend and the district attorney.

While the original script featured some jokes at Fordham’s expense, referencing the recent admissions scandal and mumps outbreak, O’Neill said that this has been toned down now that the play is being performed for general audiences.

“The great thing about Fringe is it gives me the opportunity to revisit the script, so a lot of it is totally new, “O’Neill said. “We’ve replaced Fordham jokes with stuff that is just as good.”

O’Neill is also directing the Fringe production of My Personal Hell, as he did for FET. He has experience in the festival director’s chair — he helmed a production of his play You Could Drive a Person Crazy at the Strawberry One-Act Festival in Manhattan last year. Some ideas that O’Neill tested out during the run of that show are helping him this time around.

“I used some spooky, foreboding effects in Crazy that I’m reusing here,” O’Neill said. “It’s good to have those in your pocket.”

My Personal Hell will be performed in the recently opened Loretto Auditorium. The Fringe Festival performances will be among the first at the space; its season does not begin until September.

O’Neill said staging his play at the Loretto, which seats 250 people, presented different challenges from directing the show in the smaller Blackbox.

“Everything has to be directed bigger, so it can be seen by people at the back of the theater,” O’Neill said. “We don’t have the liberty of the Blackbox, where you can see and hear everything easily. This is almost like film acting compared to that.”

My Personal Hell is not the only FET production that made it to the professional stage this summer. It Came from Portland, which was part of the spring 2014 FET Playwrights Festival, reached the semi-finals of the Manhattan Repertory Theatre One Act Competition.

Also, a 15-minute version of Take Your Base, the Little League musical which was presented in full at the Blackbox last February, played the West Village Musical Theatre Festival.

Elle Crane, FCRH ’16, who won Best Actress at the West Village festival for her performance in Take Your Base, said that presenting the show in a short-musical format “was all about precision and timing.”

“When we originally performed in the Blackbox, we had so much time to play with and we really used that to our advantage,” Crane said. “But we took this new challenge and adapted the script and music to fit the mold.”

Crane is spending the second part of her summer performing in My Personal Hell. While this quick transition from musical to straight play could be intimidating, she said that the two creative teams made both experiences “seamless.”

Both Crane and O’Neill relished the opportunity to give FET more exposure in the city.

“Having Fordham theater, especially from Rose Hill, be recognized has really been tremendous,” Crane said. “There is so much talent in FET, and to be able to share that on a much larger platform has been an incredible experience for all involved.”

Similarly, as a writer and director, O’Neill appreciated that his individual achievement was recognized by the Fringe Festival. However, he also acknowledged the journey his ensemble has been on as a group since My Personal Hell was birthed in the Blackbox.

“It’s amazing — this play is like my dream,” O’Neill said. “The cast is perfect. It’s very emotional. We’ve come a long way.”

My Personal Hell will be performed at the Loretto Auditorium, 18 Bleecker St. in Manhattan. There will be five performances between Aug 10 and Aug. 24. Individual and group tickets can be purchased here. For more information, visit the show’s Facebook page or Twitter account.

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