As you enter the Golden theatre for The Encounter, you notice the headsets on the back of each seat. When you put them on, a voice instructs you to make sure you are wearing them correctly or you won’t hear any of the show. You are about to be told a detailed story and it matters if you have the “left” headphone on your “right” ear. Our story-teller, Simon McBurney, conceived, directed and stars in this one-man production which originated at his London-based theatre company, Complicite. He strives for intimacy with the use of these headphones, as a lover whispering in your ear.
The Encounter is an aural interpretation of the 1971 book "Amazon Beaming" by Petru Popescu. It follows National Geographic photographer, Loren McIntyre as he sets out to document a remote tribe, the Mayoruna (cat people) in the jungle of Brazil. The tribe believes that they are descended from jaguars, donning long, thin pieces of wood which stick out of their faces like cat’s whiskers.
McBurney as our narrator uses one microphone. Through another microphone, and with the use of pitch modulation, McBurney becomes Loren McIntyre. He manifests the sounds of this Amazonian expedition using a binaural microphone shaped as a human head. It can actually recreate human hearing. Using it and various items on stage, he creates the sounds of the water lapping at the river’s edge, the crunch of walking on the forest floor, and the crackle of a large bonfire.
As McIntyre is out exploring one day, he loses his way back to his camp, having failed to mark his path. The next morning, he awakens surrounded by naked men with dead monkeys on their backs. They are members of the Mayoruna tribe whose native “costume” is au naturel.
He and the tribe’s leader, a character he calls Barnacle due to the pock marks on his face, begin to communicate telepathically (thus the “beaming” in the title of the original work). He follows them as they journey back to “the beginning,” before white man showed up. Towards this end, the Mayoruna live a nomadic life with few possessions, which they burn with each new move. McIntrye is forced to give up some of his possessions as well. His camera is ripped from his arms by a monkey and destroyed. He also loses his Adidas sneakers and his watch.
The language of The Encounter is dense. It was difficult to comprehend what was happening as the various voices in the play can be hard to discern. While we have the pitch change for McIntyre and McBurney, there are many times when multiple voices overlap. The role of those additional voices was not clear. This script is full of philosophical treatises about “time” and “being.” Trying to tie this to the narrative has rendered it overwrought.
McBurney’s performance is scattered as he moves through the show with a frenetic pace that only makes the narrative harder to follow. Being his own director may not have been in his own best interest.
Other than McBurney and McIntyre, the only character we can truly discern is McBurney’s real-life daughter, Noma. Unfortunately, the pace of the play is interrupted when, several times during the evening his daughter enters his office. Her entrance starts with a very loud creaking of a door in your right ear. He has already put her to sleep but she keeps waking up and interrupting him for water, something to eat, and to be told a story. I failed to find any purpose in these intrusions.
The Encounter feels like a prototype for a more substantial work. There is no set to speak of, save for a desk, various mics on stands and cases of water dispersed about the stage. The backdrop of the stage is covered with sound-absorbing foam you find in a recording booth, Will Duke’s non-descript projections cast on it.
The sound design of this play is perhaps one of its most central characters. This play is given its vigorous life using sound design. McBurney even acknowledges sound designers Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin during his curtain call as not only sound designers but musicians as well. Unfortunately, after its initial introduction, the audio technology becomes a gimmick.
The Encounter never completely came together for me as many of the details became lost in the oft-times frenetic pace and philosophical meanderings.
Edited by Bruce W. Greenwood