When was the last time you had a private, sensory experience in a room full of people — in a Broadway theater, no less? Simon McBurney’s The Encounter, now playing at the John Golden, offers audiences just that, combining old-school storytelling and sophisticated audio, piping sound into our ears in such precise, startling ways that, even in public, it feels like we’re in a time and space all our own.
Upon arriving at your seat, you’ll discover your own personal pair of headphones, which you’ll wear for the entirety of the show. McBurney, a director and performer famous for his work with theLondon-based company Complicite, hops around a mostly bare stage, surrounded by sound-recording equipment and copious bottles of water: talking to us, thinking aloud, tinkering. There are microphones, a loop pedal, and a binaural mic in the shape of a rough-hewn human head. Upstage, acoustical foam blocks are stacked floor to ceiling, forming a looming black wall on which projections play.
McBurney uses his high-tech tools to relate the story of photojournalist Loren McIntyre’s 1969 journey to the Amazon (as chronicled in Petru Popescu’s book Amazon Beaming) in search of an indigenous community called the Mayoruna. Airlifted deep into the jungle, McIntyre follows members of the nomadic group to their encampment, then, realizing he’s lost his way back to his home base, joins the tribe’s journey. The group is nomadic out of necessity, it turns out: They’re fleeing violent encounters they’ve had with white people. Their travels, according to a tribal leader McIntyre nicknames Barnacle because of the warts covering his body, are leading them to a place they call “the beginning”: a spiritual origin, a new start for their community.
Or McIntyre thinks that’s what Barnacle told him. In fact, the two have no common language and communicate using a nonverbal, near-psychic connection. McBurney stages the story, and we watch it, with the awareness that McIntyre’s account is subjective, far from a definitive record. In fact, subjectivity of all kinds is both form and subject matter of the play. McIntyre’s sensory and cultural disorientation — detached from known geographical points, mechanical timekeeping, linguistic communication — is what the piece is really about: his, and our own.
With sound designers Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin, McBurney transforms our own relationship to reality, space, and perception through the constantly shifting sounds in our headphones. One moment he’s talking into our right ear; the next moment, our left. The sounds are so intimate that he must be close by — yet he’s across the room from us, bounding around the stage. A mosquito buzzes, so close we’re tempted to slap it away — even though we can see it’s just McBurney manipulating a series of mics. During a Mayoruna dance, we see McBurney clapping but hear many pairs of hands applauding in our ears. McBurney’s performance is captivating: He’s exactly the kind of storyteller you’d happily listen to even in the absence of these technological interventions.
Periodically, we hear the sound of a door creaking open behind us and turn, startled, as the recorded sound of McBurney’s daughter enters the room. She can’t sleep and wants him to tell her a story. So he does: and tells us one too, an old-fashioned tale about a journey to parts unknown, aided by technological flourishes that make the familiar strange.
By Simon McBurney
John Golden Theatre
252 West 45th Street
Through January 8, 2017