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Bright Light’s ‘The Fifth Floor’BY: Alaina Mabaso 06.26.2012
Why didn’t Shakespeare think of this? The Fifth Floor is a drama performed entirely in an elevator, complete with real (albeit unsuspecting) passengers who have no idea what they’ve stumbled into.
The Fifth Floor. Production and dramaturgy by Julian Karlen; Samantha Tower directed. Bright Light Theatre Company production June 16-17, 2012 at Foremost Building, 525 S. Fourth St. brightlighttheatre.org.
Standing room onlyALAINA MABASO
Not until I arrived to watch a play that takes place in an elevator did it occur to me that I don’t like elevators.
I don’t mean that The Fifth Floor was set in an elevator: The actors and audience actually occupied an operating elevator for the duration of the performance. As the show started and we were ushered into the elevator at the ground floor of the Foremost Building in Society Hill, I realized it was too late to plead claustrophobia and back out.
The Fifth Floor was presented by Bright Light Theatre Company as part of Philadelphia’s third annual SoLow Festival, which is dedicated to new, experimental work in low-key, unconventional settings. Actors Allison Caw, Amanda Kearns, Jeremy Gable, Joe Matyas and Jonah Patten made a fearlessly committed ensemble at very close quarters.
Exhilarating urban vista
With a cast of five dodging in and out as fast as the doors could open and close, the show had room for only five audience members per viewing. But then, it lasted only 20 minutes and was performed back-to-back six times in the course of two hours.
The Foremost Building was presumably chosen because the large windows on its upper floors face the elevator, providing an exhilarating vista of the Philadelphia skyline in the sharp golden glare of the sunset— an ideal backdrop for the play’s volatile hallway vignettes. Since the elevator wasn’t air conditioned, the opening of the doors was doubly welcome— for the puff of cool air as well as for the action.
The action concerns a high-powered city lawyer who enjoys a sexy tryst, but the plot thickens when her lover collides with a pizza-delivery boy who has more than pizza on his mind. Their entanglement ensnares a frenzied office-dweller who is addicted to his smart-phone, as well as a tall, frowsy interloper who slouches on and off the elevator with mysterious malice. The whole thing culminates in an apparent murder that takes place just beyond view of the doors, with a sheaf of dropped papers and one mute high-heeled shoe hinting at the scene.
For a festival billed as “low-maintenance and low-stress,” The Fifth Floor artists showed arresting attention to detail, wielding a plethora of props and sporting impeccably realized costumes and makeup, right down to the red lipstick flamboyantly smeared in a reckless kiss.
The entire performance was glimpsed in snippets through the open doors, or in tense and sweaty rides between floors, when audience members, with sidewise glances, wondered how much of the usual theater audience etiquette still applied. We remembered to silence our cell phones but couldn’t quite work out whether to reciprocate the eye contact directed our way by the actors in this ultra-intimate setting.
(One woman audience member, uncertain as to just who was in on the performance and who wasn’t, addressed other viewers in a whisper as if the actors were up on stage rather than 18 inches away.)
Ultimately, most of the solo parts of the performance involved actors holding vehement cell-phone conversations, which left me wondering why I was attending a performance of a phenomenon I find moderately annoying when it happens in real life. But Tower and Karlen understood that if the performance was short enough, the sheer novelty of the experience would compensate for the haphazard storytelling.
In a gutsy move by the artists, elevator service for building residents and visitors continued without interruption during the performance. Watching the unsuspecting riders who happened to step through the doors during the action was perhaps the best part of the show. (Most unsuspecting passengers, after casting mystified glances at the actors and the small group of silent riders crammed beside them, sought refuge in— what else?— their smartphones.)
After a climactic final tableau, the elevator flew back to the ground floor. The character riding along ordered us out with hectic exasperation. We hunkered there in the elevator for a moment longer, wondering what to do, before piling out into the blessed cool of the lobby. With a businesslike goodbye from Tower, we regained the street and wandered wordlessly away.♦
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