Skip to content Skip to navigation

Broadway Review: The Encounter

Friday, December 2, 2016 - 06:45

As has become custom, while in NYC for Thanksgiving, I took in the show playing at the theater where Lauri is house manager. This time it was "The Encounter" created, directed, and solo-performed by Simon McBurney. This work clearly falls in the general category of "experimental theater" so I'm going to come at this review from several different angles. The synopsis from Playbill gives the most basic background of the work: "In 1969, Loren McIntyre, a National Geographic photographer, found himself lost among the people of the remote Javari Valley in Brazil. It was an encounter that was to change his life: bringing the limits of human consciousness into startling focus. Conceived as a theatrically aural experience, the audience is drawn directly into the middle of the action."

Starting with the technical angle: the aural environment is a major element of the performance--one might say the most important element aside from the script. Each audience member is given a set of headphones and--after a brief introduction--all sound, both live and recorded, is channeled through the sound system. The 360-degree stereo aspect is regularly played with, not merely to position sound effects behind the listener and provide the illusion of movement and location from imagined characters, but sometimes to deliberately contradict McBurney's physical position to reinforce the subjectivity of perception that is a major theme of the play. The physical staging is spare: a desk, a mannequin head on a post that stands in for the viewer/listener (as part of the sound pick-up system) and also stands in for various characters being interacted with. A handful of other props, such as water bottles and a mass of video tape, that are repurposed at various times.

The story itself is told in constantly shifting layers: McBurney the playwright interacting with the bedtime rituals of his daughter, McBurney the playwright collecting anecdotes others tell him about the photographer McIntyre, McBurney the narrator telling McIntyre's framing story, and McBurney the actor as McIntyre in the midst of his adventure. Shifts between the layers not only serve to comment on the act of storytelling and the ways in which narrative is bent to differing purposes, but also serve to break up some of the more intense scenes and "reset" the audience's emotional baseline.

All this fictionalization and subjectivity created (for me) a cloud of confusion over what messages the performance was meaning to communicate. For me the deepest story--that of the photographer McIntyre--kept feeling like it boiled down to, "white dude disrupts the lives of indigenous tribe and makes the whole thing about his own personal spiritual transformation, including attributing Mystical Powers and Spiritual Wisdom to the Magical Natives." But at the same time, the version of the story being presented on stage had gone through several transmissions and interpretations, so it was difficult to tell what aspects reflected McIntyre's view on his experience, versus how he presented that experience to others, versus how those others interpreted that story, versus what McBurney felt would make a compelling stage performance.

The various layers of narrative framing kept bringing my attention back to the play's commentary on the act of storytelling. From one angle, McIntyre's experience is set up almost as a portal fantasy or hallucinatory vision. The portal framing begins when he is dropped by plane in the middle of the Amazon jungle, encounters two members of the Mayoruna tribe, and follows them through the trackless vegetation until he loses his way and has no choice but to keep following them. The portal is exited later, after a climactic ecstatic ritual, when a sudden violent storm and flood leaves McIntyre floating downriver, separated from his Mayoruna companions and returning to western civilization.

But conversely, these distancing techniques that move the events of the story farther and farther into fictional territory are contradicted by the play's conclusion, which presents the playwright as having traveled to meet with the Mayoruna and discuss the performance with them. The problem is: by the time we get to this part of the performance, I've settled into an assumption that no specific element of the script can be taken as factual. So even this purported touch-back to the real people being depicted on stage (well, for a value of "depicted" that doesn't involve actors or physical presence) feels just as fictional as everything else.

So. What did I think? The work is technically impressive and memorable, but it feels exploitative. I keep coming back to "white dude makes encounter with indigenous people all about his own subjective spiritual transformation in which they are primarily stage props." In this light, the staging as a one-man show that seems designed to center McBurney's stage-chewing abilities is a perfect mirror.