The eerie true story of National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre’s encounter with the elusive Mayoruna tribe while lost in the Amazon rainforest is made stranger still in Simon McBurney’s one-man play The Encounter. The tribal “headman” communicated with McIntyre telepathically; McBurney communicates with the audience aurally, through individual headphones at each seat.
For the first 15 minutes or so, McBurney explains the technology – how his voice can sound as if it’s coming just in our left ear, or just in our right ear, or behind us; and how it can be live or recorded; and how you can create sound effects like the buzzing of a mosquito without the use of an actual mosquito. If that doesn’t sound to you like very cutting edge technology, McBurney’s patter does come off initially like a hobbyist’s over-enthusiasm.
More production photos at NewYorkTheater.me
When the story begins, The Encounter is indistinguishable from a radio play, with nothing much to look at onstage except McBurney, some microphones, a few bottles of water, and a backdrop that looks like the insulation foam in a sound studio. Relying on sounds and downplaying the visual struck me as an odd way to tell the story of a professional photographer.
But it soon becomes clear that McBurney’s enthusiasm is not really so much about the technology, as about the questions provoked both by his storytelling and by the story he is telling, which is based on an account of McIntyre’s journey in the 1991 book “Amazon Beaming” by Petru Popescu. The audio format enables McBurney to inject comments on the narrative through recorded interviews he conducted with Popescu and various scientists and philosophers; and to interrupt the narrative with recordings of McBurney’s five-year-old daughter asking him to tell her a story.
“This is as much a voyage of the mind as a bodily one,” McBurney writes in the foreword to a new edition of Popescu’s book, retitled “The Encounter: Amazon Beaming.” McBurney, the co-founder and artistic director of the experimental British theater company Complicite, is writing about the journey he took 20 years after McIntyre, retracing the photographer’s steps.
But he might as well be referring to the journey the audience takes in the play on Broadway. By relying on sound at the Golden Theater, McBurney is surely trying to force theatergoers to question how we envision the world. His foreword continues: “We are possibly interconnected in ways to which we are, mostly, blind in the modern world – a world in which, paradoxically, we are more connected by technology than at any time in history.”
Not every theatergoer will welcome the novelty or isolation of a play taking place in a headphone, even as it is intended to help us be less blind – to have us ponder cosmic questions about reality, community, the nature of existence, and what the play calls the “space/time/mind continuum.”
But the final phase of Loren McIntyre’s journey – the last half hour of this two-hour intermission-less play – is a pay-off for patience, when attention is drawn to the stage, as the performer takes off his shirt to re-enact a shamanistic ritual, and the lighting, set and projection designers go to town, Simon McBurney’s well-honed theatricality – visual at last – matching the mystical, mesmerizing real-life fever dream he has been voicing.
The Encounter is on stage at the Golden Theatre (252 West 45th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, New York NY 10036) through January 8, 2017.
Tickets and details
The Encounter . Directed by, conceived by and featuring Simon McBurney. Scenic Design by Michael Levine; Lighting Design by Paul Anderson; Sound Design by Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin; Projection Design by Will Duke; Sound Operator: Guy Coletta, Benjamin Grant, Amir Sherhan, Helen Skiera and Ella Wahlström. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.