Friday, April 28, 2017

"The Encounter"

The Encounter
Simon McBurney
Based on the Book Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu

Simon McBurney & The Binaural Head
“I am now so close, in your ears ... I am now going to take a walk across your head.”

The voice is somewhere inside each audience member as will be in the next one hundred fifty-five minutes many voices of varying dialects and languages; countless sounds of jungle, villages, and overhead planes; as well as music, dancing feet, and a child’s midnight whispers to her father.  One man stands before us on a wide stage populated with a single table, a computer, many bottles of water, and a lone head with two big ears on a microphone stand.  Through our individual microphones, a world unseen becomes vividly real amid the sounds that enter into our mind’s eye from the left, right, back, and front – to the point we may turn to see who is suddenly behind us or may swish at some mosquito buzzing above our heads.  Using technology that is amazingly current (and one, the binaural head microphone on its mid-stage stand, that is actually decades old), Simon McBurney employs the ancient art of storytelling to convey a true tale of a man’s singular journey into undiscovered parts of the Amazon to meet and live for a time with indigenous people.  Along the way, the creator, director, and sole performer of The Encounter (now playing at the Curran Theatre) will hold his cocooned, wide-eyed audience members in raptured attention as he challenges our concepts of time, place, and reality.

Simon McBurney bases The Encounter on a book by Petru Popescu, who in turn writes the story of Loren McIntyre’s true-life adventure as a National Geographic photographer when he ventures solo in 1969 into the remote Javari Valley of Brazil.  There, Mr. McIntyre comes across some indigenous tribe members, follows them for hours into the thick jungle, gets lost all the time taking pictures, and finally finds himself in a village of the Mayoruna – a people totally separated from any signs or contact with modern civilization.  For the next two months, the photographer lives with the nomadic tribe with no common language; yet he finds himself increasingly in deep communication and relationship with some of its members, particularly with one man he calls Barnacle.  As the days pass and as told in the book and in this stage adaptation, the photographer sheds all signs of his own ties to the outer world, including watch, sandals, and even camera and film.

Simon McBurney
The solo performance of this story’s telling is a tour de force like none other any of us has probably ever seen.  Mr. McBurney’s own voice transforms into a variety of narrators and actors, aided by various microphones.  His vocals blend and mix with sounds he creates, records, and then plays back in echoes, random-like sequences, and prescribed patterns.  From a few taps on bottles, boxes, or floor; hand claps and foot stomps; papers rattled or torn; or nonsensical bellows and roars, jungle nightlife and rainstorms, tribal mingling and dances, or annoying swarms of flying insects come to life in the space around and within our listening heads.  Often as if in a frenzy and other times as if in meditative trance, the actor/performer treks, runs, and jumps about the large stage as he tells McIntyre’s story.

And as Mr. McBurney relates McIntyre’s encounters ranging from enjoying a last bag of Cheetos to line dancing all night with the entire tribe to communicating telepathically with his friend Barnacle, he parenthetically addresses us with such questions as “Am I telling this story, or is the story telling me?”   We hear quotes from the lost photographer that deserve more than just our passing attention but have to be stored away for later contemplation: “I was in such a panic that I saw my thoughts running in front of me” or “Death is a vast array of lights being shut off, ” to highlight just a couple.  And we begin to understand, as does McIntyre himself, what it really means to be “with these people,” to “hold still in time,” and to be on a journey to “go to the beginning.”  We also receive lasting lessons on the fragility of the remote environments of our world and of the ripple impact that even one person’s action (like letting go of a rope) can have on an entire civilization.

The intimate, one-to-one storytelling that Simon McBurney achieves is certainly not a one-person achievement.  An entire team of sound engineers and recording artists, headed by Gareth Fry along with Pete Malkin, has previously ventured far and wide (including in the hot, sweaty, mosquito-laden jungles of Brazil) to record many of the sounds we hear.  A number of that team is working throughout the performance like an orchestra of a stage musical to provide a seamless soundtrack timed to the second to the actions and narrative of Mr. McBurney.

While much of this story’s magic happens through the onstage creation of sounds along with their being mixed with pre-recordings, the story comes to full light (literally) by the incredible lighting design of Paul Anderson, especially as it plays out in giant shadows and rippling colors across a massive sound wall as part of Michael Levine’s overall stage design.  Will Duke’s projections enhance our entrance into the jungle’s entanglements and environs.  And all has been directed with precise timing and pace by the performer himself, Mr. McBurney.

The Encounter’s title not only describes a time when a lost photographer finds himself face-to-face with an indigenous people heretofore unmet by modern times, the title also describes our own experience as an audience of a personal, all-encompassing experience with that man’s adventure and with the people he meets.  Bravo to the Curran Theatre for exposing Bay Area audiences to this storytelling achievement of paramount proportions by Simon McBurney et al.

Rating: 5 E

The Encounter continues through May 7, 2017 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at or by calling the Box Office at 415-358-1220 between 10 a.m. and 6 pm. Monday through Friday.

Photo Credits:  Robbie Jack

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