Past Reviews

Broadway Reviews

The Encounter

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - September 29, 2016

The Complicite Production of The Encounter, inspired by the book Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu. Conceived, directed and performed by Simon McBurney. Co-directed by Kirsty Housley. Performed by Richard Katz at certain performances. Scenic design by Michael Levine. Sound design by Gareth Fry & Pete Malkin. Lighting design by Paul Anderson. Projection design by Will Duke.
Theatre: Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Tickets: Telecharge

Simon McBurney
Photo by Joan Marcus

Who says Big Broadway is dead? As far as any regular theatregoer is concerned, it's alive and well and living at the John Golden. Even factoring in, say, Garth Drabinsky's mountings of Show Boat and Ragtime and most of the extravaganzas at the Met, I'm not sure I can recall seeing anything bigger than The Encounter, which just opened there. It's not a musical, but it has a set depicting a full rain forest in South America (along with, heck, a good chunk of the Amazon itself), a cast of dozens, and a dizzying complement of animals, all of which conspire to make this one of the most sprawling and most immersive shows the Main Stem has seen in... well... a good number of decades, one suspects.

This may sound like hyperbole, but the Complicite production, which was conceived and directed (with Kirsty Housley) by its sole actor, Simon McBurney, and was previously performed at the Barbican in London last season, really is all this and more. And what makes it more amazing still is that McBurney has crafted all this—to say nothing of a compelling story—entirely with sound. Oh, there's technically a physical set, which Michael Levine has cannily designed to resemble the inside of a recording studio, or maybe an anechoic chamber, and it makes a few eye-popping metamorphoses of its own (with the help of Paul Anderson's lacerating lighting and Will Duke's vivid projections ). But it's not what you'll stumble away remembering.

That would be the astonishing sound design by Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin, who use a trio of microphones (including a binaural head) to play games with time, space, and thought you probably never thought possible. Echoes repeat and sustain themselves into infinity. Seemingly random noises layer into gorgeous but chilling tapestries outlining entire ecosystems. The British McBurney, simply by angling his head, can conjure an electronic American voice that rings utterly natural. Words transform into memory, which in turn become a wholly different reality, which is itself then subject to McBurney's tiniest whims. And if he wants you to become hot, cold, or despairing, or to escort you to the brink of death, he'll stand in exactly the right place and unleash his utterance in just the right way to ensure you're helpless in his hands. It really is all this precise.

Perhaps the most arresting facet of this towering accomplishment is that it all feels as though it's been created just for you. Delivered as it is through a headset you're provided upon taking your seat, the soundscape is intensely intimate, which only makes the shivers cut deeper. That's critical, as the tale itself demands that same sense of isolation. It's based on Petru Popescu's book Amazon Beaming, which chronicles photojournalist Loren McIntyre's unwilling journey to the heart of the Brazilian jungle, where he meets the Mayoruna tribe, and along the way (while skirting myriad brushes with certain demise) discovers considerably more sobering truths about both himself and the world he inhabits.

Simon McBurney
Photo by Joan Marcus

McBurney weaves this around a version of himself, as he explores the process of building all this from component pieces, inside his mind as well as out. Concerns both political and personal become inextricable from the texture of the drama, as news reports and McBurney's young daughter (desperate for her to read him a story) make their presences known at just the right time. Or is it the wrong time? After about half an hour (the intermissionless evening runs just shy of two), you cease being able to tell the difference, let alone discern where and when your existence at the moment is unfolding. So fluid is the journey between fantasy and hyperreality, that you wouldn't be surprised at any given second to learn you'd been catapulted into another dimension altogether.

In a way, though, you have. Eventually, even the tangibility of the stage gets wrapped up in the adventure, with chip bags, miles of unspooled VHS tape, and other such props carving out new avenues that McBurney then uses to drive you further into the wilderness. And when McBurney tries to regain control—a gloriously fruitless pursuit if ever there was one—all he does is invite in additional chaos. Sooner or later, and for better or worse, everything oozes out of our control. (Not coincidentally, this is also a key moral of the play.)

Watching (and hearing) it all occur in real time is riveting, as much because of the eternally playful and resourceful McBurney as the sound—both are remarkable, undeniably theatrical beasts that thrive on the energy of those around them, and happily welcome you to give it back to them in the form of your undivided attention. (Not that you could divide it if you wanted to.) It hardly matters, then, that you don't quite get the impression that a more general adaptation of Popescu's writing would be as mesmerizing under other circumstances. This is all about fusing content with form until they're indistinguishable, and it's unthinkable that anyone could achieve that more completely through any other means.

This was driven home for me during The Encounter when—I'm ashamed to admit this—I took off the headset for a couple of seconds so I could compare the experiences. There is no comparison. Being jolted from the jungle into a dead-silent auditorium was enough to induce whiplash, and realizing that the menagerie of millions I was hearing and feeling was, in fact, just the work of one man in front of me and his mastermind collaborators behind the scenes struck me as a violation of a sacred trust: that, if I gave myself over completely to the illusion, it would become the most real thing in the world. I wanted to be transported back to that newly constructed universe where McBurney was conducting me through McIntyre's unique hell, but letting me know, through his sorcery, that it would ultimately be all right.

As soon as I replaced the headphones, it was. This is theatre so pure, it doesn't need sets. But in eschewing them, The Encounter gets them as no other show ever has—and oh so much more, too.

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