The meaning of time is constantly pondered, discussed and perhaps even escaped from by the protagonist of The Encounter, the new play on Broadway by Simon McBurney, but, for theatergoers at this overstimulating and exhausting production, it is never forgotten.
Coming to Broadway after its performance at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and subsequent run at the Barbican Theater in London, The Encounter was received with rave reviews across the Pond. But this immersive show, which employs technology in impressively creative ways, never registers as a complete piece of theater. Instead, the effects are overused and eventually rendered unnecessary, and the production, which was intended as an immersive and unique experience unlike anything else playing on Broadway, feels like an over-amplified distraction.
Conceived, directed and performed by McBurney, The Encounter was inspired by Petru Popescu’s book Amazon Beaming, which recounts the experiences of Loren McIntyre, an American photographer who ventured into the Brazilian rainforest in search of the Mayoruna tribe. He finds them and soon finds himself immersed in their community, encountering the dangers of the jungle and witnessing the natives preparing for rituals of rebirth.
And all of this is performed by just one man. McBurney is the only person onstage during The Encounter, playing McIntryre, several tribe members and himself. Casually dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, McBurney is an affable Everyman as he begins the show by chatting with the audience about their relationship with space and time. But this one man, unadorned by a costume and performing on a set that consists of only a desk, a chair, and numerous microphones, seems swallowed by the cavernous Broadway stage (designed to resemble the padded walls of a sound booth) as he narrates, acts, sings, dances, frequently gulps water from one of the many bottles located throughout the set.
But he doesn’t do it alone; McBurney’s co-star in this production is technology. Upon entering The Encounter, audience members are asked to don headphones, through which the performance is enhanced and transformed into a singular experience. McBurney’s voice easily moves from one’s left ear to the right thanks to the sound effects by Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin and the binaural microphone shaped like a head that stands centerstage. The voices seem to come from every direction, including just behind one’s shoulder, resulting in an eerie, disorienting experience – especially when the disembodied voice of McBurney’s six-year-old daughter is heard, complaining that she can’t sleep and asking her father to read her another story before going back to bed.
The audience also listens to sounds of the jungle – the engine plane that deposited him in the wilderness, water swishing and insects buzzing – as McIntyre encounters the Mayoruna people, finds himself stranded and, realizing they do not speak Portuguese, unable to verbally communicate with them. He forms a nonverbal connection with the head of the tribe, whom he dubs Barnacle, and the two begin communicating instinctively or telepathically as he accompanies the tribe on its journey, both physical and symbolic, to their own beginnings.
McBurney’s performance is undeniably impressive. He is seemingly tireless, swiftly and seamlessly moving from one character to another. But this performance alone is not enough to sustain the audience for almost two hours.
A Western man’s journey into the jungle has provided countless opportunities for cultural exploration, as read and watched in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the film Apocalypse Now. The Encounter does mention in passing the impact of profit-seeking Americans on the undeveloped wilderness as well as difficulty of an American man adjusting to life without devices like his watch and his camera.
But the clarity of such a message is drowned out – at times, quite literally – by the sound effects, which prove to be overstimulating and frustratingly distracting to the audience, leaving the audience unable to immerse oneself into the sensory experience, let alone the story. Running almost two intermissionless hours, The Encounter drags, leaving the audience wondering how long he will remain in the jungle. In its attempt to take us away from the devices and mindset of tracking time, The Encounter, instead, reminds us of them.