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The Encounter

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

Simon McBurney.  Photo Joan Marcus

Simon McBurney. Photo Joan Marcus


Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

What may be an edge-of-the-seat, captivating immersive theater experience to one viewer may turn out be a snore to his neighbor. My hint, therefore, is to approach The Encounter with an open mind and be glad for the headphones. Without them you don't have the technology and without the technology, you don't have a show.

This solo audio-intensive production from Complicite, was conceived and directed by Simon McBurney in his tour-de-force performance at the Golden Theatre. It was inspired by Petru Popescu's 1992 book, The Encounter: Amazon Beaming, which recorded Loren McIntyre's 1969 Amazon adventure to the Javari Valley in Brazil. McIntyre was an American photographer from National Geographic on an expedition to photograph the Mayouruna natives, an indigenous tribe isolated from the rest of the world. Originally, a three-day adventure, McIntyre remained in the jungle for several months, enduring suffocating humidity, starvation, dehydration, hallucinations, and an infection of maggots. In addition, a monkey stole his camera and film and smashed any hope of his photographing the adventure.

McBurney opens The Encounter by telling us to put on the headphones. Introducing us to various technological wonders of the microphones and sound effects, he replicates myriad sounds of buzzing mosquitoes, running water, whispering and blowing in the ear. Numerous other recorded voices add to the sounds of the jungle, and intermittently, McBurney's young daughter demands her father's attention much as we yearn for communication.

McBurney describes this artificial presentation as a technological trick, the brain acting as a "kilo of electrified pate." He takes on two roles of a British narrator and also as McIntyre himself. When McIntyre finds the tribe, or they find him, he describes them with spikes in their faces making sounds of a jaguar. He learns these people have a completely different concept about time and their form of communication is without words but through telepathy, much like McBurney's messages telegraphed into our brains.

McBurney is physically non-stop action, dashing from his desk crammed with microphones to a standing microphone that helps him alters the vocal pitch he wants us to hear. A binaural microphone resembling a human head picks up his voice as well as the acoustics of the space, placing us right with him.

As McIntyre finds himself lost in Paul Anderson's dim jungle lighting, McBurney draws us in with him, sometimes deafened with Gareth Fry's and Pete Malkin's layers of sounds. The experience is fascinating and at times, exciting, as when McIntyre finds the source of the Amazon. It is also fatiguing and demanding, 110 minutes without an intermission. McBurney is an intriguing performer, drawing us into his exhausting world with enthusiasm and fortunately, he is spelled twice a week by Richard Katz.

Before it ends, we are also well aware that The Encounter is a unique sensory theatrical experience, technology with immersive sonic effects that lends a feeling of isolation in a crowded theater. It may be your cup of tea but is not for everyone, especially at top prices.

Golden Theatre
252 West 45th Street, NY
Previewed: Sept. 20, 2016. Opening: Sept. 29, 2016 Closing: January 8, 2017

Conceived, Directed by: Simon McBurney
Co-Conceived by: Kirsty Housley

Running time: 110 minutes