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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
McBurney and his Complicite company have fascinated New Yorkers with their distinctive approach to theater before. I have vivid memories of remember Mnemonic back in 2001. In 1998 Street of Crocodiles was part of the Lincoln Center Festival and their terrific version of The Chairs, directed by but not performed in by McBurney played at the very theater where we're encountering The Encounter now.
Whether you'll love The Encounter as much as London critics and audiences and many of my New York colleagues have so far, depends on how much you value a show's vive la difference factor. Unquestionably, it IS different from anything now on Broadway — the show most likely to be the season's must-see if you want to be part of any conversation among theater goers who pride themselves on being adventurous and committed to supporting theatrical innovation.
Actually this latest Complicite project is not that different from the above Mnemonic which also a high concept play that reflected on story telling in an age increasingly changed by technological advances. People who went to that show found a mask in their seats which McBurney in a jokey warm-up persuaded them to put on. In The Encounter, there's a head phone and McBurney again starts things off casually in sort of a stand-up mode by explaining how test that phone and why it's going to be integral to your getting fully into the story he's going to tell you.
While I'm certainly glad I saw The Encounter, and it will probably stick n my memory bank as Mnemonic did, it falls into that special category I think of as an "on the other hand" show. Much of the praises heaped on this project are well-deserved but there are also moments when even the all-enveloping soundscape couldn't keep me from slipping out of that very effectively created immersive state with an on-the-other-hand thought. Mainly, the unique story telling approach's grip on my senses wasn't quite firm enough to hold me for almost 2 hours. During the last twenty minutes or so, I caught myself sneaking glances at my watch — and even a couple of times removing the head phone to compare the with/without experience. The headphones definitely won out!
McBurney and co-conceiver Kristy Housley have managed to bring their unique story telling gifts to what is essentially a hair-raising adventure story and our story teller gets quite a physical workout. The setting suggestive of a sound studio by Michael Levine is a perfect background for all the low and high tech and amusing low tech immersive presentation that's integral to the story telling.
The Encounter perfectly exemplifies McBurney's meditation on the many ways of telling a story. It's also an interesting vehicle to illustrate how one man's story can inspire another's own way of telling it — and yet again take root in the imagination of someone working in the theater. To be specific, the show was inspired by Romanian writer Petru Popescu's book The Encounter: Amazon Beaming. That book was in turn inspired by National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre's explosive, mind altering 1960s adventure with a primitive Mayoruna tribe in the Amazon rain forest, a tribe constantly on the move to escape from what they perceive as the white man's dehumanizing and exploitative civilizing forces.
Fascinating indeed. But here's that "on the other hand" again: Even if it weren't about 20 minutes too long, you might find all those voices and philosophical observations about time, life and, death as often distancing as fully engaging. All those recorded voices (more than a dozen are credited in the program) tripping through your ears from all directions may take this beyond the realm of the solo genre, but they are also occasionally confusing. Taking that On the other hand in the opposite direction, those voices include McBurney's 5-year old daughter demanding that he tell her a story, add a nice touch of fourth wall breaking comic relief to the building tensions and life threatening dangers of Mcintyre's trip.
The arc of the Mcintyre-via-McBurney story involves his odd extra-sensory communication with a tribal chief through which he realizes that they, and he with them, are going back to their "beginning" (probably death, the encounter for which McIntyre, and none of us, are ever quite ready. The eerie and often filled with pain, fear and desperation journey is illustrated mostly aurally but there are also visually potent moments like a momentous bonfire and amusing old-fashioned sight and sound business with water bottles, masses of videotape and even a bag of Cheez Doodles.
McBurney's visionary theater making is brilliantly supported by his design team: Gareth Fry & Pete Malkin's ingenious, all around your head sound design, the work of projectionist Will Duke and lighting designer Paul Anderson unnerving but mesmerizing shifts from flickering semi-darkness, the blazing brightness to pitch black. Be sure to stay and join Mr. McBurney's combining his final bow with an acknowedgement of their work. Without them you could not have taken this intriguing theatrical trip to the Amazon.
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Conceived and directed by Simon McBurney
Co-Conceiver: Kirsty Housley
Richard Katz will perform at some performances (see Telecharge for specifics)
Set Design: Michael Levine
Sound Design: Gareth Fry
Sound Design: Pete Malkin
Lighting Design: Paul Anderson
Projection Design: Will Duke
Production Stage Manager: Adam John Hunter
Stage Manager: William H. Lang
Running Time: 1 hour and 50 minutes, no intermission
Golden Theatre 252 West 45th Street
From 9/20/16; opening 9/29/16; closing 1/08/17 Note: According to the Telecharge listings, the headsets everyone wears during the performance will not require people using hearing aids to remove them. In short, they will replace the infra-red system but will work with hearing aids.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer 10/06/15
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