By Meredith Ganzman
The Encounter may be the first Broadway show where upon taking your seat you must put on headphones rather than take them off. In fact, without them you won’t be able to hear any of the play.
It’s a delicate and intricate dance between writer and star Simon McBurney, and his sound designers Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin, in this one-man play from the British theater company Complicite. Advanced binaural technology – or 3D sound – utilizing multiple on-stage microphones and a Sennheiser dummy head microphone creates a soundscape of different character voices, settings and time spaces of the story. You can almost feel the sound- a buzzing bug from behind or breathing in your ear. Think of it as a “public podcast”, says Johnny Oleksinski of The New York Post. But is this your kind of listening pleasure?
Based on the book Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu, McBurney tells the story of National Geographic writer and photographer Loren McIntyre, on assignment in October of 1969 on the border of Brazil and Peru. Looking to capture the first images of the Mayoruna tribe, also known as the “cat people” because of their tattooed mouths and palm spines pierced noses resembling whiskers, McIntyre gets lost following them through the jungle.
Telling this story and looking back, McIntyre is “in search of the beginning.” Or is it McBurney on this quest? It’s hard to tell, as the plays goes back and forth between McIntyre’s time in Brazil and McBurney’s life in London in 2014, at home late at night with his very young daughter. There is, as the play says, a “crack between here and there.”
That is in part due to McIntyre’s inability to communicate with the Mayoruna in either Portuguese or English. Getting further lost with the tribe, McIntyre says he can converse with the tribe’s leader through telepathic messages. And so you begin to question what is real and what is fake in this story.
But is there too much to get rid of, the play asks, to get back to the beginning, and in our oversaturated technological society, find the truth? Ironically you are immersed in that very tech from underneath the headphones, while trying to answer that question. It sends McBurney into a rage on stage. There’s too much now to get rid of, he screams, flailing a hammer through a table, ripping it apart and throwing a water bottle at the audience (don’t worry, though – it’s empty).
And at the end it’s all just a little too unclear – the story is unable to uphold the heft of its internalizing questions. Despite the bright lights and big sounds, you’re kind of just left in the dark.
The Encounter is playing now at the Golden Theater.