The Encounter: An Audacious Aural Amazonian Experience
Fasten your seat belts, or so it feels like one should as you walk into the Golden Theatre on Broadway for what is being billed as “one of the most immersive theatre pieces ever created”. We see a bare stage with what appears to be a lot of sound equipment, a desk that reminds me of a DJ work table, and a whole lot of bottles of water stacked up here and there around the stage. And then out walks, quite casually, Simon McBurney asking us to turn off our cell-phones and put our headsets on. We are about to begin. Or is he just warming us up, getting us on the same page, and in some ways, preparing us for The Encounter.
It’s an exciting start. It causes our senses to be ignited and electrified. The Encounter, coming from a highly praised sold out run at the Barbican London and the Edinburgh International Festival, is most definitely a triumph of technology and sound design (by Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin) with some old school movie sound effect magic thrown in. It’s basically a radio play (or maybe I should call it a performed podcast play) staged live in a Broadway house by one very talented vocally gifted performer utilizing the latest and greatest in sound engineering to lead us through the jungles.
McBurney, after explaining the technology and playing with our heads and our ears, begins to tell us the story of National Geographic photographer, Loren McIntyre’s experience in the Brazilian rain forest as he attempts to make contact with a certain mysterious Mayoruna tribe. Auditorily speaking, it is initially quite the experience; to hear and almost think we feel what it was like for McIntyre to be trapped in that hot jungle. Through the telling of this intriguing survivalist tale, McBurney, who conceived and directed this piece (co-directed with Kirsty Housley), raises many anthropological questions about engagement and the affect on those he makes contact with. Thrown into that mix is also a heady discussion of time and the possibilities of parallel dimensions, playfully interrupted here and there with recordings of an interview, but also interactions with a child who won’t stay in bed. I could list more of the heady concepts discussed and theorized upon but the list would grow long and overwrought. Sadly, this is also an apt description of this play.
The tribe that he encounters becomes his savior, teacher, mystical guide, and possibly something much darker, as the leader, a character named Barnacle, escorts him and his tribe in a quest for the beginning. It’s a journey through time and faith. Everything up to this point had me totally at its mercy. I was right there with McIntyre, excited, intrigued by this experience as much as the photographer was thrilled and electrified by his predicament. But somewhere along the path the novelty began to wear off, sometime after the thorns and the maggots, the near death challenges, or maybe after the second, or was it the third hallucinogenic experience, my mind started to wander off on its own. I could feel my eyes start to travel around the theatre looking for maybe some form of salvation. There wasn’t enough of interest on the stage to keep me invested visually, so I thought I’d shut my eyes and try to maintain focus as if it was just a radio play. But the story wasn’t grabbing me tightly anymore as it did in the beginning, and after about the 60 minute mark, the story grew convoluted and confusing. The telling of it had lost its hold on me. In the end, all I wanted was to be home in a comfy chair listening to the remaining sixty minutes from a podcast on my Iphone. The Encounter had failed me in the end. The technology had lost its hold on me and the story had lost its footing. I wasn’t with him in the jungle anymore, just uncomfortable in a Broadway theatre, wanting to escape.