Well, here’s a show for which the term “Unique Theatrical Experience” perfectly applies.
However, all unique theatrical experiences are not created equal. Sorry to say, THE ENCOUNTER, now on Broadway at the Golden Theatre, belongs in the lower echelons of such entertainments.
Frankly, it’s the damnedest thing. Simon McBurney, unassumingly dressed in workshirt and jeans topped by a baseball cap (that – surprise! – has its brim turned forward), wrote and directed himself in this one-person, thousand-sound show.
“Thousand” may be an exaggeration, but it could actually be an understatement. On the back of every seat is a pair of lightweight headphones. All show long, they provide what in the ‘60s was called “Stereo Action” in which the sound travels from one side of the headphones to the other.
That means McBurney winds up being in competition with the dazzling SFX brilliantly conveyed by sound designers Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin. For those who mourn that the Tony Awards Administration Committee has scuttled the Best Sound Design prizes, remember that these powers-that-be can bestow a Special Tony Award when they deem fit. They’ll have to recognize THE ENCOUNTER.
The sound is so authentic that you’ll be looking over your shoulder to see who’s coming down the aisle only to discover there’s no one there. Later, you may be inclined to tell the person seated next to you not to make so much noise until you realize that the sounds are coming not from that innocent theatergoer but from one side of your headphones.
If you attend with a friend, you might turn to the person and ask “What did you say?” before acknowledging that you were hearing part of the soundtrack that was designed to emulate your seatmate addressing you.
Words aren’t all you hear. The sounds of thunder are so loudly accurate that you may lose a tiny bit of your hearing. The real problem is that you might also lose track of what McBurney is saying because you’ll be concentrating on the sonic pyrotechnics. That’s especially true when the Golden’s sound system augments what you hear on the headphones, allowing for some intriguing sounds to permeate the house.
With all this going on, the story is almost an afterthought. THE ENCOUNTER is based on a book that may well be new to you: Petru Popescu’s AMAZON BEAMING. It tells of McIntyre’s 1969 journey to a remote part of Brazil where he met uncomprehending natives and a jaguar that bore no relationship to an XKE.
When the 52-year-old photographer was faced with a threatening-looking animal or, for that matter, equally intimidating human animals who had “teeth like shards of black obsidian,” he was intent on shooting (photographically speaking, of course). The results would be, after all, incontrovertible proof that he was there.
McBurney lets us see – nay, hear – that McIntyre made no bones about being frightened, but being a photographer first, last and always, he took pictures for as long as he could. We do admire his courage when surrounded by a scowling tribe that had issues with a foreigner in their midst. (But isn’t that true of every country?)
That’s pretty much the story, although if you want to know the Latin names of the genus and species of the white maggot, McBurney is here to tell you. So we’re left to be entertained by sounds. Because a jungle is home to many a mosquito, the sound designers put one right in our right ears. At Sunday’s matinee, after the buzzing finally abated, the audience actually applauded. Were theatergoers impressed at how realistic the bug sounded – or were they merely grateful to finally be spared the all-too-true-to-life buzz of that damned insect?
So is THE ENCOUNTER simply sound and fury signifying you-know-what? At its worst, the show is akin to an amazing sound demonstration at a stereo store. At its best, it’s a radio play masquerading as a Broadway attraction – but a radio play that Orson Welles would have cut to a half-hour from its current 110 minutes.
Old-timers who lived through the pre-TV era when furniture-sized radios dominated living rooms always say that the best thing about radio listening and seeing no pictures was that it spurred one’s imagination. Now’s your chance to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear, for everything in this show is told but not shown. There’s no getting around the fact that a one-person show essentially means always listening to a Narrator – a device that has signaled lazy playwriting.
Fans of Books on Tape and Books on CD may have a different opinion. They could feel that instead of steering their cars and hearing a book dictated, they can now watch the stage instead of what’s outside their windshields.
However, there’s not much to see on the set. The scenic effects are left to a back wall that does a few tricks via lighting. Otherwise, Michael Levine’s design resembles a distressed version of LOVE LETTERS – which, you’ll recall, gave its audience nothing but two tables and chairs. The only difference here is that they’re shoved stage right and they’re buttressed by about four dozen bottles of water.
Once you begin to see the ramifications of doing a non-stop, intermissionless marathon, you’ll assume that McBurney will need that water to soothe the strain on his voice. As it turns out, he has other plans for those bottles.
Perhaps to vary THE ENCOUNTER’s mood, a young girl occasionally interrupts her daddy’s discourse. We relish her arrival, for little kids always have the potential to say something endearing or even entertaining. Alas, her most telling remark turns out to be “Tell me a story that’ll make me go to sleep.” THE ENCOUNTER, were it to be stripped of sonic wonders, would have easily made the kid start the first of her 40 winks.
And yet the “play” is certainly a personal triumph for McBurney the actor – equal to the exercise enthusiast who has his own personal triumph by being the best in the gym on the Stairmaster. But how long would you want to watch this person climb stairs? And how long will you want to see McBurney run from microphone to microphone and tell this not-especially surprising or compelling story?
After it’s over, you’ll undoubtedly want to applaud and give a standing ovation to reward the yeoman and tireless work delivered by McBurney the actor. But for McBurney the playwright, your heart and mind will have you applauding politely and keeping you seated.