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Aural Pleasure: The Curran’s Latest, ‘The Encounter,’ Is a Sonic Brainscramble

A one-man play at the Curran Theater sends the audience into an altered reality with tricks of sound.

Simon McBurney in The Encounter.

 

I’d only just taken my seat and donned the pair of headphones I’d found waiting for me across my seatback in the Curran Theater when from somewhere behind me—I swear, behind me—a faint voice seemed to draw nearer. Simon McBurney, the sole actor appearing in the night’s production, The Encounter, was there, onstage directly in front of me, and yet his voice had burrowed directly into my mind, and was now creeping up from behind me. Softly, he blew into his microphone, sending a hush into my right ear and, somehow, activating my reflex tickling sensation. I shuddered. And yet, I could still see him standing some 30 yards away, stage left, smiling.

The crowd erupted in dazzled laughter at this trick—one of many, many to come over the ensuing 110 minutes. The Encounter, produced by the British company Complicite (of which McBurney is a cofounder), ostensibly tells the story of former National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre’s 1969 journey into the Amazon to document the Mayouruna, an indigenous tribe that had resisted contact with the outside world. In reality, that plot takes a backseat to the mind trip brought on by McBurney’s audio spectacle. 

Using loops, dubbing, prerecorded interviews, music, sound effects, and vocal modulators, McBurney is able to create an entire sonic universe, in which nothing (including the show’s plot) moves in a linear fashion. Instead, we’re inside a fever dream—intermittently trapped captive in the Amazonian jungle, thrust into a London flat where we’re trying (and failing) to put McBurney’s restive 5-year-old daughter to bed, and fretting over how to adapt Petru Popescu’s book, Amazon Beaming, into the script of the very play we’re viewing, like Nicolas Cage in Adaptation. Yeah, it’s all pretty confusing.

The star of the show, hands down, is the “binaural head” microphone, made by Neumann, the high-end German audio manufacturer. Shaped like a human head and set on a stand at center stage, the mic has sensors on all sides, creating an audio feed that, once piped through the audience’s Sennheiser headphones, gives the impression of 360-degree sound. Its human form also presents McBurney with a second body to act upon: When he speaks to the head-mic, he is speaking to us. If he moves behind it, we sense that he’s moved behind us. (At one point, McBurney runs around the unit with a tiny speaker that’s buzzing like a mosquito. In my ears, the effect was so lifelike I nearly started slapping the bugs off my face.)

Other microphones set up onstage change the pitch of McBurney’s voice or otherwise modulate it. At times, he plays prerecorded monologues, interviews, and sound effects, blurring the lines between them so thoroughly that it becomes nearly impossible to match what you’re seeing onstage with what you’re hearing in your ears. (I can’t help but cheat at one point and slip off the headphones, and what a trip that is: an entirely silent audience, save for an unmicrophoned McBurney screaming onstage.)

For most of The Encounter, the sonic fireworks (supervised by sound engineers Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin) add depth to the proceedings—as McBurney’s character ventures deeper into the jungle, further from his own world and his own sense of time, the aural hallucinations grow more vivid. At times, however, the spectacle overtakes the story: A wall of sound stands between us and the character’s journey. 

Somewhat vague notions of mysticism abound, and chaos becomes the order: At the beginning of the show, McBurney warns the audience that time is, as Matthew McConaughey might say, a flat circle (or something like that). Parallel stories and parallel worlds are constantly being weaved together, to the point that the audience is jerked back and forth between the middle of the jungle, tripping on psychoactive toads, and simultaneously back home reflecting on that trip—but occupying the same moment in space-time.

The Encounter shares some qualities, and likewise some deficiencies, with another recent production, performed right next door last month at ACT’s Geary Theater: Robert Lepage’s Needles and Opium. Like The Encounter, Needles largely eschewed human characters to tell its story, relying instead on just two actors—one playing Miles Davis and the other a Quebecois writer channeling the avant-garde French filmmaker Jean Cocteau—and some mind-melting visual effects to fill in the gaps. (Nearly the entire play took place inside a giant, rotating cube outfitted with several trap doors, onto which images and video were projected.) The effect in Needles was, in its best moments, of a dizzying heroin binge. Yet too often the stagecraft, so expertly choreographed, became the play’s entire raison d’être, exposing an over-reliance on technology to make up for a script I found nearly impossible to follow.

The Encounter flirts with the same glitch. But it manages to not succumb to it entirely. What ultimately saves the production from a pure reliance on audio gimmickry is McBurney: In character as McIntyre, his stream-of-consciousness (or rather unconsciousness) rants have a tendency to spiral into a manic crescendo. But as himself, the narrator, he keeps things tethered to the world outside our headphones. His charming, humorous asides—particularly his recurring conversations with his unseen young daughter, who needs the story explained to her and wants to know what daddy is up to so late at night—help save the production from spinning all the way out of control. 

 

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