The Encounter, Simon McBurney’s two-hour intermissionless solo show on Broadway, which many critics have panegyrized as an enthralling immersive experience, left me indifferent and droopy-eyed.
I’m not immune to the spell this show was trying to cast. Back in 2001 McBurney and Complicité came to New York with another piece, Mnemonic, that had many of the same basic ingredients—fragments of a contemporary story knitted together with bits of far-flung philosophical and scientific inquiry, along with a precisely applied multimedia technique—and I was seduced. I went to The Encounter expecting more of that synoptic magic. Instead the show struck me as a motley agglomeration of fragmentary journeys and inquiries whose connections were flimsy and only grew flimsier as the gimmickiness of the multimedia technique became clear.
In case you haven’t heard, The Encounter provides all spectators with individual earphones attached to their seats. We hear McBurney’s voice through them as he dashes about the stage speaking into microphones that do cool stuff like change the direction of his voice, feed it through one ear or the other, distort its register, delay its delivery, repeat it on loops, and so on. He also creates sound effects, radio-style, with ordinary objects like a Cheez Doodles bag, water bottles, and a bunch of magnetic tape. It seems we’re meant to marvel that what we see sometimes doesn’t synch with what we hear. The blurred boundary between live and recorded sound replicates the disorienting mental experiences narrated in the show.
The main experiences McBurney recreates are those of Loren MicIntyre, an American photographer who in 1969 rather recklessly went to document a remote Amazonian tribe called Mayoruna that had repeatedly retreated into the jungle to avoid contact with civilization. He nearly died after becoming marooned miles away from his river dropoff spot, and the tales we hear (most from the novelist Petru Popescu) describe, for instance, how he lost his mental and physical bearings along with his camera and other modern trappings, tried to communicate nonverbally with the Mayoruna “headman,” and hallucinated under the influence of a tribal brew. This material alternates with snippets of interviews with neuroscientists, philosophers, environmentalists and others who opine about the adventure and other matters, as well as interruptions by McBurney’s five-year-old daughter when she’s unable to sleep and wants daddy’s attention. McBurney also strips off his shirt and relates a comparatively pedestrian fantasy about a modern suburbanite “freeing” himself by setting fire to his material possessions in his yard.
Here’s the problem. Apart from the questionable value of the earphones—which are physically irritating and don’t provide effects nearly amazing enough to nullify our natural preference for showing over telling in the theater—McBurney’s climactic regression to “primitive” unaccommodated man in the show feels hollow and irrelevant. He stripped his clothes off in Mnemonic too, as it happens, but there the act felt necessary and poignant because the multimedia effects were sporadic and lightly applied and because the piece’s equally improbable mélange of story bits and research threads about, say, a woman’s quixotic search for her father and the discovery of a 5,500-year-old corpse in the Alps all converged—movingly and dazzlingly—around the pivotal subject of memory. What is it? What does mean to form, lose and share it? Does it, can it, endure?
No such pivotal subject exists in The Encounter that I can discern. The piece flails around trying to identify one but it never chooses among the many disparate options, such as professional ego, scientific hubris, the corruptions of civilization, the experience of time, distracted parenting, the neurology of perception, the dubiety of memory, and much more. McBurney can’t convincingly offer a theatrical parallel to McIntyre’s transformative regression-and-return adventure because his show fetishizes its fancy sound equipment. There is no real risk-all baring of theatrical means here, and that’s why the show feels dreary and dessicated. Technology alone can’t hold our fascination, and the work's claimed impoverishment and reduction to basics ends up feeling forced and hortatory, like a Beckett ride at a theme park.
Photo by Gianmarco Bresadola