Headphones are strapped to every seat at the Golden Theatre, where “The Encounter,” fresh off a London run, has just opened. Theatergoers wear them for all of actor Simon McBurney’s performance, which tracks a photographer’s disorienting trip into the Amazon rainforest.
Sitting for “The Encounter” is an experience very much about sound, and only a little about sight.
McBurney is founder of the U.K. theater troupe Complicite, and an actor who has had roles in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” and “Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation.” The gimmick in “The Encounter,” which McBurney conceived, directed and performs, has him using binaural technology ("3D audio”) to create a world of sound.
On stage, there’s just McBurney in a foam-walled broadcast studio, with dozens of bottles of water (some destined to become projectiles) and a Sennheiser dummy head microphone. When McBurney breathes slowly into the dummy’s ears, we hear his breath in ours. Ditto for his imitation of a jaguar in the jungle, or the drone of a Cessna.
Technologically, it’s pretty fun stuff. Alas, the story becomes so disorienting and meandering that it doesn’t make for a great night at the theater.
McBurney’s work is inspired by author Petru Popescu’s 1991 “Amazon Beaming.” That book was, itself, derived from the journals of Loren McIntyre, a National Geographic photographer who in 1971 set out to discover the source of the Amazon River.
McIntyre found himself lost among the Mayoruma tribe in Brazil’s Javari Valley, and in his journals wrote that he communicated with the tribe’s chief telepathically before reaching the river’s source.
There are readily apparent and relatable themes in “The Encounter.” Among them: we’re natural creatures, but our material possessions hold us hostage. As well, there’s a well-intentioned message about how it’s wrong to interfere with the lives of any indigenous people, particularly these, who—in the telegraphed words of a campaigner for Survival International—view “the oil underneath the ground as the blood of the earth.”
Finally, there’s a strong narrative thread about how time is a relative concept. McBurney’s own interior monologues are frequently interrupted by the aural “appearance” of his daughter, wanting a late-night snack or a bedtime story.
As the second hour evolves, “The Encounter” becomes more like performance art, with McBurney losing himself in McIntyre’s cacophonous dehydrated delusions. The story moves in fits and starts, becoming that much more difficult to follow.
I’ll argue that “The Encounter” would be more at home Off-Broadway, some place like The Public, than in the vast openness of the Golden. As things stand, any sense of intimacy it’s striving for dissipates in the space. As an aural experience, “The Encounter” is an accomplishment, but the story takes too long to arrive at an unsatisfying destination.
“The Encounter,” through Jan. 8, 2017 at the Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St. Tickets: $59-$155. Call 212-239-6200.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn