'The Encounter': Theater Review

Tristram Kenton
Simon McBurney in 'The Encounter'
Listen up.
1/8/2017

Simon McBurney evokes a journey into the heart of the Amazonian jungle while also exploring more abstract realms of time and consciousness in the writer-director-performer's solo sonic odyssey.

The visionary British theater troupe Complicite has been making magic at the intersection of physical, cerebral and technological storytelling for more than 30 years. The company's co-founder and artistic director, Simon McBurney, now ushers the radio play into the 21st century with The Encounter, which invites us to see with our ears the experiences of National Geographic photojournalist Loren McIntyre with an indigenous tribe deep in the Brazilian rainforest in 1969. Using individual audience headsets to bridge the sonic gap between performer and listener, McBurney undertakes an intimate investigation into the "space-time-mind continuum" that resembles no other theater piece in memory.

This virtuoso head-trip premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival last summer before playing a London engagement to ecstatic reviews earlier this year. Its New York transfer marks the chameleonic McBurney's debut as a Broadway performer, after having directed productions of Ionesco's The Chairs in 1998 and Arthur Miller's All My Sons in 2008.

He starts the piece in a deceptively casual manner, segueing from the usual request to switch off cellphones into a chatty reflection on the place in our lives of those devices, as repositories for photos, videos and memories, some more permanent than others. McBurney then suggests the role illusion will play in the story by giving us a demonstration of the head-shaped binaural microphone that sits centerstage, allowing him to blow hot breath into one ear and send a mosquito buzzing around the other. We also see how he loops and overlaps certain sounds, using recordings and repeat functions, and later, how he creates old-fashioned Foley effects, with water bottles, a tangle of videotape or a bag of Cheez Doodles.

Given how thoroughly the audience is let in both on the technology and the artifice, as well as the research that went into creating The Encounter, it's remarkable how quickly and completely the piece becomes an immersive narrative. Throughout, McBurney shifts between his own voice — either as onstage narrator or back in his London home studio with frequent interruptions from his 5-year-old daughter, heard in recordings — and the deeper, American-accented voice of McIntyre. Yet despite the constant reminders that this is an act of storytelling, the lines separating our experience in the theater from McIntyre's in the rainforest and from McBurney's own thoughts all but vanish.

Inspired by Petru Popescu's book Amazon Beaming, the show traces veteran explorer McIntyre's journey from the moment when he's dropped by a Cessna into a remote spot in the jungle near a previously sighted village. His quest is to find and photograph the elusive indigenous Mayoruna, who had resisted acculturation by retreating deeper into the forest during the turn-of-the-century rubber boom. Will he be setting a corruptive process in motion simply by photographing this tribe, he asks. Related questions about the influences of civilization on people living in self-sustaining isolation surface throughout, along with considerations on whether our lives are expanded or limited by our reliance on gadgets that tether us to time, be it past, present or future.

The sense of wonder kicks in the instant McIntyre makes contact, and with it, the sense of fear. Having neglected to mark his tracks back to the campsite when he followed a handful of tribesmen to their temporary village, McIntyre finds himself pulled into a community whose suspicion and potential hostility toward outsiders are impossible to second-guess. He's separated from his most precious property, his only possible ally becoming a chief he nicknames Barnacle, with whom he communicates by glances and also by what he imagines to be a kind of telepathy. "Some of us are friends," is the cryptic message he keeps receiving.

Unfolding over an indeterminate period, the incredible story involves shamanistic spells and counter-spells, nomadic relocation, a feverish illness during which carnivorous maggots hatch under McIntyre's skin, a possibly hallucinogenic interlude with a jaguar and a flood that follows a mystical ceremony in which all bonds with time are ritualistically loosened as the tribe returns to "the beginning." McBurney whirls around the stage as if possessed during the climactic stretch, the accelerating physicality of his performance underscoring how remarkable it was that McIntyre, who died in 2003, survived the experience at all.

In McBurney's urgent retelling, every passage of the elemental eco-odyssey becomes as vivid as the jungle humidity and the noise of insects, animals and rustling leaves, even as we watch the performer artificially create those sounds. As a portrait of modern man removed from the certainties of civilization and plunged into an unfamiliar grasp of time and consciousness and language, The Encounter is an extraordinarily visceral, often hypnotic piece of storytelling. It must be added, however, that any solo show running close to two intermissionless hours asks a lot of its audience, and this one is more impactful in the moment than in terms of lingering resonance. Still, the play's steady crescendo of intensity is impressive, even if its Rousseauesque ideas seem more like impressions than persuasive findings.

Paul Anderson's lighting, splashed across a rear wall covered only in soundproofing material, works with McBurney's words to create a ceaselessly shifting state of mind. But the production's most astonishing artistry is the infinitely layered enveloping world conjured by sound designers Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin. Close your eyes and you might find yourself reaching for bug spray.

Venue: Golden Theatre, New York
Cast: Simon McBurney
Director-writer: Simon McBurney, inspired by the book
Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu
Co-director: Kirsty Housley
Set designer: Michael Levine
Lighting designer: Paul Anderson
Sound designers: Gareth Fry, Pete Malkin
Projection designer: Wil Duke
Produced by Complicite
Presented by Richard Frankel, Tom Viertel, Steven Baruch, Marc Routh, Douglas L. Meyer, James D. Stern, Barbara & Alan D. Marks, Timothy Headington, Ian Bentley, Don Clark, Dan D’Angelo, Jim Kierstead, Willette & Manny Klausner, D. Rebecca Davies/Marks-Moore-Turbull Group, Gary Goddard Entertainment/Jerry Katell, Larry Kroll/David L. Shapiro

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