The first minutes of The Encounter (currently at the Curran) are a mix between technological witchcraft and light hypnosis. After a brief introduction about the nature of fact and fiction, you put on your headphones as instructed. Then things get weird. Actor Simon McBurney claims to be “in the middle of your head,” and, sure enough, that’s where his voice originates. The intimacy of it is uncanny. When he breathes into the right ear of the head-shaped directional microphone onstage, you hear a whoosh of air and feel your own right ear heat up. (Would you have felt that warmth if he hadn’t told you that you would? Or have you been hypnotized?)
The story he tells is both compelling and bizarre.
Using looping, accents, pre-recording, the directional microphone, and other techniques both high-tech and theatrical, McBurney creates and dismantles worlds. Sometimes we sit in his London flat, where he works on this show around frequent interjections by his adorable daughter. Clips of interviews with experts play tantalizingly, covered within seconds by live talking. Then we move to the Amazon basin, where sounds of rain and wild animals surround us. McBurney alternates between the gruff American adventurer Loren McIntyre and his own identity as omniscient narrator.
The story he tells is both compelling and bizarre. On a National Geographic trip to photograph the Mayoruna people, McIntyre ends up lost and camera-less. He makes friends and enemies among the tribe, nearly dies, and witnesses a ritual that brings him to the source of the Amazon. Many of the details are difficult to believe (especially the telepathic nature of McIntyre’s communication with the tribe’s headman)—hence the frame dealing with the nature of truth.
Perhaps the incredible nature of the story is also why McBurney takes a certain ironic distance. He peppers the story with interruptions and comments. The largest emotional explosions—most notably a destructive binge that sees him smashing glass bottles and taking a hammer to his recording table—feel empty. The ending, too, lacks substance. The marvels of the technological set-up wear off, especially as later in the show more of the sound is centered and layered with typical instrumental scoring. The narrative itself wraps up with a “just so” story from the Mayoruna, staid and difficult to connect to the drug-induced frenzy McBurney/McIntyre describes minutes before. But the Curran has a solution if your evening feels unfinished: swap out your headphones and head to the second-floor lobby for a silent disco!
The Curran Theater San Francisco
3.5 out of 5 stars