Complicité Theatre Company
The John Golden Theatre
252 W. 45th Street, Manhattan
A Review by Deirdre Donovan
Runs through January 8, 2017
Click here for production photos!
The Complicité’s production of The Encounter has landed on Broadway and become an instant hit of the new theater season. Conceived, directed, and performed by the British actor-director Simon McBurney, it has wowed audiences in London, Edinburgh, and throughout Europe before coming to New York. With binaural technology and McBurney’s unique brand of storytelling, it is sure to leave a lasting impression on any theatergoer who visits the production.
Based on Petru Popescu’s book Amazon Beaming, McBurney sensitively retells the story of how National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre in 1969 got desperately lost among the people of the Javari Valley in an Amazon rainforest. According to a recent online article in Playbill, McBurney read Popescu’s book when it was published, and 15 years later, asked the author for stage rights. Popescu agreed—and McBurney began creating his solo show.
What emerged is what you see—and hear—at the John Golden today. First thing theatergoers will notice are the headphones attached to each seat, just waiting for the show to go on air. But it’s not til McBurney enters the stage area, dressed in a technician’s uniform and cap, that the show begins to hum. He first checks the equipment on stage, and calibrates it to his satisfaction. He then introduces himself to the audience, and briefly explains his raison d’etre for being on Broadway. After this formality, he invites everybody to put on their headphones to listen to the real-life story of McIntyre and experience the effects of 3-D audio. From then on, McBurney speaks, not only from the stage, but directly into each audience member’s eardrum. True, it’s a bit isolating--and one loses the sense of being part of the audience-at-large. But something else is gained here: McBurney is no longer a distant performer on stage but a crystal-clear voice that swirls through the neurons, synapses, and pathways of your brain. And McBurney, alternately speaking in a British accent (as himself) and an American one (as McIntyre), proceeds to tell the real-life tale of how McIntyre happened to encounter the Mayonaura tribe in Brazil.
While McBurney faithfully conveys a chronicle of McIntyre’s trek into the Amazon wilderness and his adventures with the Mayonauras (aka “cat-people” for the spikes imbedded in their faces), he interlards it with philosophical meditations on time and storytelling itself. In fact, McBurney, co-founder of the Complicité Theatre Company, is an old hand at presenting plays that push the theatrical envelope. And, yes, The Encounter is in the same vein as his former work. But with the addition of binaural technology to this play, McBurney transcends every other project he has done.
Admittedly, I found myself confused at certain points during this narrative. McBurney continually shifts personas, perspectives, and time-frames. But then The Encounter, at its core, is a consciousness-expanding experience. And the best thing to do, I found, is to loosen up and go with the flow of the story.
Beyond its impressive sound technology, the show has homespun moments too. McBurney uses recordings of his daughter Noma at age 5 (she’s now 7) to interlard his monologue. In these brief but charming scenes, his daughter’s voice is heard as she repeatedly wakes up at night in her bedroom, pleading for McBurney to tell her one more bedtime story. This greatly humanizes the piece and serves another purpose too: McBurney points out to the audience that they too, like Noma, have come to the theater to be told a story. And, honestly, who can argue with him?
This production is scientific, poetic, surreal, and altogether fascinating. And though McBurney is no doubt the star, the creative team that he collaborates with is top-notch. Michael Levine’s set looks like a real recording studio, complete with a healthy supply of bottled water, audio tapes, floor lamps, a table, and various microphones. The dominant prop is the binaural “dummy” head at center stage, which controls the acoustics on stage and off. Gareth Fry and Pete Makin’s sound design is, in a word, stunning. Paul Anderson’s mostly flat lighting is apropos, though it changes dramatically when “The Storm” scene happens at the finale. And Will Duke’s projection adds some necessary visual imagery to this mostly aural theatre experience, and it nicely grounds the production.
What else is there to say? The Encounter is a terrific show. And those who invest 90 minutes of their life to listen to McBurney retell the story of a National Geographic photographer’s journey to the Amazon rainforest won’t be disappointed.
Through January 8, 2017.
At the John Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th Street, Manhattan.
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Click here for production photos!