Theater Review: ‘The Encounter’
NEW YORK—The planes of fantasy, reality, and make-believe are beautifully brought together in the absolutely brilliant production by Complicite of “The Encounter,” a one-man show now at Broadway’s John Golden Theatre.
Conceived, directed, and performed by Simon McBurney (co-conceived by Kirsty Housley) and inspired by the book “Amazon Beaming” by Petru Popescu, the show expertly combines humor, drama, and sound effects wizardry.
The wizardry is due to the fact that the audience is required to wear headphones for the entire performance. Thanks to some technological sleight of hand, we not only hear sound coming from the headphones themselves but also perceive it coming from behind, above, or right in front of us.
Many times during the performance, I could swear I heard a rustling or low murmuring next to me (a sadly frequent occurrence in shows these days) only to realize that it was part of the performance.
There are actually two stories presented in “The Encounter”: the real-life tale of Loren McIntyre, a photographer for National Geographic, and McBurney’s attempts to tell that tale—one attempt including a brief discourse on the consistency of Cheez Doodles.
In 1969, McIntyre entered the Amazon rainforest in an attempt to take pictures of the Mayoruna, a tribe that lived for hundreds of years untouched by civilization—at least until civilization reached them to exploit the natural resources in the area. In the process, some of the Mayoruna were killed, and others were made slaves. Those of the tribe who were left simply retreated into the jungle.
When some of the Mayoruna happen to wander across McIntyre’s path, he follows them but becomes lost in the process. His only hope of survival is to stay with this tribe, which has a deep suspicion of outsiders.
The few pieces of civilization McIntyre has with him—his watch and camera—are stripped away, and he finds he has to live by his wits, such as casting a spell on those of the tribe who would put a hex on him.
“The Encounter”—the title ultimately referring to a spiritual rebirth—wonderfully enables the audience to feel McIntyre’s journey, moving from the reality he’s always experienced to one of a completely different perspective.
The effect becomes even more powerful when we yield to the inevitable temptation to close our eyes and let our minds conjure up the appropriate pictures for the tale being told via the headphones.
To give a personal example, after following the story with my eyes closed, I opened them at one point and watched McBurney. While I knew on one level that McBurney was indeed giving a performance on the stage of a theater, at the same time, I didn’t connect his performance with the story I was experiencing in my mind of the Amazon rainforest. At that moment, I felt far more a part of the Amazon tale than of what was occurring on stage in front of me.
Mixed in with this magical journey are several messages. We so-called civilized people, for example, are dependent on the concept of time. McIntyre has a habit of looking at his watch.
Also brought up is the question of responsibility: What was McIntyre doing in the rainforest in the first place? If he publishes the pictures he’s taken of the tribe, their location will be documented, and others may then travel there to exploit them. How this issue is resolved is never clearly explained and results in just about the only unsatisfying thread in an otherwise superlative piece.
The play also takes a swipe at consumerism by showing the danger of allowing material things to define us and thus rob us of our connection to nature and perhaps to our very identity.
Finally, the show offers a sobering reminder of the effects of colonialism.
McBurney’s performance is nothing short of excellent. The actor changes accents, postures, and movements as he literally throws himself into the world that he and his team create.
The other star of the performance is the sound design. McBurney himself acknowledges the considerable efforts of his sound design team, led by Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin—all of whom deserve the praise they have received.
While the sound effects are powerful and realistic, the show never allows McIntyre’s story or that of the Mayoruna to be relegated to the background. The fact that the stories remain central (with some rather interesting distractions as McBurney tries to keep the narrative moving) allows the various elements to work together in perfect unison.
A brilliant tour de force on multiple levels, “The Encounter” is an experience that should be experienced by as many people as possible, and one that I wholeheartedly recommend.
On Tuesday evenings and Wednesday matinee performances, the play is performed by Richard Katz.
John Golden Theatre
252 W. 45th St.
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes (no intermission)
Closes: Jan. 8, 2017
Judd Hollander is a member of the Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, and reviewer for stagebuzz.com