Broadway Review: 'The Encounter' at at the John Golden Theatre

Asya Danilova

- OnStage Associate New York Critic

“The Encounter”, conceived, directed and performed by Simon McBurney is inspired by the 1991 novel “Amazon Beaming”, a true story about a National Geographic photographer, Loren McIntyre, who became lost in the jungle of the Amazon river in 1969. The layered narrative and superior storytelling abilities of McBurney is boosted from the advanced aural technology making this solo-performance a truly one of a kind Broadway show. 

A head set on each seat awaits every audience member. McBurney jokingly gives instructions on how this is all going to work from a technical point of view. The robotic grey head on a stick in the middle of the stage is in fact a microphone, receivers to which are attached to each of the audience member’s headsets. When McBurney whispers in the head’s right ear – you right ear gets warm and not only because he said it would. The encompassing sound is uncanny, especially considering where you are. Sitting in the row O in the Golden Theater and being able to hear the actor whisper is pretty incredible by itself. 

McBurney entertains us with this new toy for a while but also starts throwing some thoughts about the role of technology in modern society. He pulls out his cell phone, replying to his daughter’s call, and scrolls down through the endless tiled wall of her pictures. “There are more pictures of my daughter in this phone than there are pictures of my childhood and adolescence combined anywhere, and this is just from the last few weeks” – he notices with surprise and devastation. How persistently the human psyche desires to hold on to photographs, as if it was the only proof of somebody’s existence.

There will be no imagery in the show – scenic design by Michael Lavine consists of a desk, many microphones and many bottles of water. The backdrop looks like an inflated soundproof grid, the kind that they use in recording studios. Abstract patterns of video projections, designed by Will Duke, and the lighting by Paul Anderson, are the only visual effects. This clean, strictly technical, setting is inhabited by Michael Lavine’s wild choreography. The dense, sound landscape provokes intense movement from the actor as the story is told both verbally and physically, enhanced by the sound design by Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin. 

We witness Loren McIntyre’s trip to the Amazon, and his encounter with the local tribe, Mayoruna, turning it into a spiritual journey. Simultaneously, we watch Michael Lavine working on this story in his apartment in London, the voice of his invisible, 5-year-old daughter constantly interrupting him. Lavine uses different voices for himself, photographer McIntyre, and others. He talks into different microphones and we identify his voice with the narrator or the character. But sometimes the actor’s voice disappears in the forest of prerecorded ambient sounds and fragments of interviews with other people, including Mr. Popescu. Your hearing flounders around looking for the guidance of a familiar voice. You catch yourself thinking: is it happening on stage or did I close my eyes for a moment and dream of the Amazon rain forest? 

“The Encounter” runs through January 8th in John Golden Theatre at 252 W. 45th St. Tickets start from $49 and are available online. Photo by Robbie Jack.