Richard Frankel, Tom Viertel, Steven Baruch, Marc Routh
The Complicite Production of
(The Encounter Website)
Conceived, Directed, Performed by
252 West 45th Street
New York, NY
Co-Conceived by Kirsty Housley
Scenic Design by Michael Levine
Projection Design by Will Duke
Lighting Design by Paul Anderson
Sound Design by Gareth Fry and Peter Malkin
Technical Supervision: Hudson Theatrical Associates
Production Stage Manager: Adam John Hunter
Advertising: Serino Coyne
Press Representative: Boneau/Bryan-Brown
General Management: FGTM/Joe Watson
Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
October 6, 2016
Have you ever dreamed of getting lost in the Amazon in Brazil, hearing hissing, jungle insects, exotic bird calls, and the percussive beat of tribal drums, coming closer and closer? The London-based, Simon McBurney, born in Cambridge, England, has written and directed Broadway’s new solo show, The Encounter, starring – yes, Mr. McBurney. But, he’s not actually performing alone, as the audience members each hear his narrative, plus his vocal impressions of a Mayoruna tribal chief and villagers, his impressions of Loren McIntyre, the late photojournalist, who wrote of his astounding adventures in the Amazon, the voices of actual scientists and philosophers, with whom Mr. McBurney spoke, during his creation of this play, as well as Mr. McBurney’s actual five year-old daughter, who kept waking up in need of a glass of milk or bedtime tale. The source of Mr. McBurney’s inspiration was the Romanian, Petru Popescu’s 1991 novel, Amazon Beaming, about Mr. McIntyre’s fantastical recollections of his 1969 South American journey. Thanks to Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin, sound designers, and Hudson Theatrical Associates, technical supervisors, each seat in the audience is hooked up to specialized earphones that enabled us, especially with eyes closed, early on, to imagine that Mr. McBurney is speaking from behind our shoulder, or standing above us, or hiding under our seat. The precise technology of adaptive sound, to trick the brain into assuming its general location and into feeling like we’re surrounded by a horde of marching ants or swirling mosquitoes, is truly impressive. Before the show begins, Mr. McBurney demonstrates his amazing technical equipment, all onstage within foam walls, to introduce his dramatic narrative.
The set includes a backdrop of geometric shapes that are brightly lit, green for jungle growth and red for bonfires. The backdrop is also lit a variety of dark and light shades, with and without visual texture, to widen the door into each new geographical and cultural conflict that McIntyre must survive. When Amazon time stops for McBurney’s daughter’s interruption, it’s evocative of a parent writing a personal letter and noting to the recipient that he paused for his young daughter again, but, here, we are engaged in his domestic reality within his adventurous fantasy. In the jungle episodes, McBurney crinkles old videotape to mimic a crackling fire, and he shakes a plastic bottle of water to mimic a rushing river. He details the facial flaws and postures of the Mayoruna, particularly of their chief. He vividly impersonates McIntyre running in counter circles around the tribe, to join in with a ceremony, and McIntyre seeing his smashed camera and burned, valuable sneakers, knowing his fate is now in limbo, and his eyes must be his camera. He also describes finding one tribal man who spoke Portuguese, so, finally, he could communicate his respect for Mayoruna territory, in the midst of unfolding, indigenous rituals. Rituals narrated included the realization that McIntyre was encircled by the tribe, while a bonfire exploded with endless flames.
The Encounter is an absorbing theatrical experience, in terms of dramatic chronicles that transport the imagination with a sense of intimacy with the narrator, as exterior sound is shut down by the large earphones. Yet, the visual gestalt was quite unappealing. If we only saw the backdrop, with shifting, colored light, it would be minimal but pleasant. But, we saw a stark, steel table, water bottles about the floor, cartons of crumpled videotape, strewn papers, a microphone topped with a head (the high point of the props), foam walls, etc. I actually wished Mr. McBurney had been hidden or side stage and that the backdrop be covered with McIntyre’s photo projections (McIntyre wrote and photographed for National Geographic, Audubon, and The Smithsonian), so the visual impact could have sealed the audience’s adventure. Also, the constant interruptions of the child’s voice became annoying, after the third variation of that theme. Sometimes even a solo performer would be wise to hire an outside director to pull the entire concept together, especially one on Broadway. Yet, this production did lead me to search out the Mayoruna and McIntyre, so the educational value is certainly inherent in the experience.