‘5th Floor’ transports audiences in a perpendicular mystery

This weekend begins a festival for extremely low-budget theater.

The third “SoLow Festival” features 16 performances that creatively overcome bare-bones production values.

Case in point: “The 5th Floor” by Bright Light Theatre, with a maximum audience capacity of just five people. For the length of the performance — about 20 minutes — they stand in an elevator of a five-story building. Every 15 seconds, the doors open to a very short performance, in medias res.

The scene is cut when the doors close.

“This mechanical door acts as a reveal on these floors,” said director Julian Karlen. “You have this constant curtain.”

“It’s the ultimate proscenium,” said producer Samantha Tower. “Little snippets of human life that you experience in these intimate public spaces is the basis of what we wanted to explore.”

There are about 30 of these tiny vignettes, each dropping clues that trace a story of betrayal, office romance, a firing, a robbery, and a murder. While Karlen, Tower and their ensemble actors have permission from the Foremost building landlord to use the elevator, the building at Fourth and South streets in Philadelphia is actively used by commercial tenants.

Because “The 5th Floor” will be performed in the early evening hours, those tenants will be getting on and off the elevator along with the actors. The audience has to navigate who is acting and who is real.

“It really is an office building,” said Karlen. “People really are trying to get out of work at the end of the day. Some people get out … some people don’t.”

Karlen and Tower are exploiting their low-budget circumstance. The mystery of the plot is heightened by the fact that the audience view is restricted — they can only see the small area outside the elevator doors. Plot clues dropped by the actors will be muddied by false clues dropped by real people just trying to get home.

Like many of the So Low festival offerings, the elevator play banks on the intimacy and awkwardness of a cramped space that cannot be replicated in a proper theater.

“The 5th Floor” will be performed Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 525 S. 4th S. The SoLow Festival runs through June 24; solowfestival.blogspot.com

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