By Tulis McCall
The Encounter is an encounter all right. This is the story of Loren McIntyre, a National Geographic photographer, who got himself lost and then found himself lost among the people of the remote Javari Valley in Brazil. McIntyre traveled to the Amazon to find the Mayoruna people. Within 24 hours he had not only found them but followed them so far into their world that there was no way for him to leave without their help. While they were friendly, they showed no signs of wanting to retrace their steps. On the contrary, they were more intent on taking their makeshift village apart and moving onto the next location where they would build another.
The Encounter, Simon McBurney explains to us in a slow rambling opening, is not only what happened to McIntyre, but it is what is about to happen to us. Everyone has headsets at the ready with a steady loop that has been guiding us to listen for a sound in the right ear, the left, and both. And of course it says “if you cannot hear please raise your hand” – vaudeville lives on.
The sound possibilities are introduced to us as the play slides into a beginning that we don’t see coming. Everything is about illusion, says McBurney, including the illusion itself. This is a magic show of the simplest and most hi-def sort.
As we watch, McBurney guides us into the jungle where the sounds do the talking. He switches from his native British accent to an low throated American cowboy and tells the tale. McIntyre seems to have been nearly seduced into following the Mayoruna people. Soon after he lands in their territory his camera and film – the tools he would use to prove his tale – are stolen by a playful money, and his watch and shoes burt to a crisp in a small fire. Welcome to our world. He also makes contact with the leader he nicknames Barnacle because of the odd growths on his legs. And this is where the encounter of a third kind happens, for Barnacle introduces him to the “Old Language” – the one in which no words are spoken but are most definitely heard.
The story continues like a travelogue that might have been beautifully produced by BBC. And it would have been one that I turned off. This is more sound effects than story, and as such only held my interest for so long. While the story of the story is compelling – The Mayoruna people want us to know they exist, and they want us to leave them and their oil alone – the style of the storytelling is what is in the forefront here. Listen to him talk from the left. Listen to his voice in back of you. Listen to him blow in your ear. The story of the Mayoruna takes second place to the “show.” McBurney is a combination of story teller and magician/technician – emphasis on the latter. We marvel at his technical skills over and over again. The head on stage has binaural microphones that astonish. You will be tempted to swat at the sound of more than one mosquito, so real is the effect.
In the end it seemed less important that the tale was told and more important that McBurney was at the center, doing the telling. He is griot, who loves the sound of his own voice, looking for a tribe. Not my cuppa tea, mate.
The Encounter – Conceived, directed and performed by Simon McBurney; Co-Directed by Kirsty Housley
Cast: Simon McBurney, Richard Katz (at certain performances)
Set by Matt Levine, Sound by Gareth Fry and Peter Malkin, Lights by Paul Anderson
The play is inspired by Petru Popescu’s “Amazon Beaming,” a 1991 novel based on the American photojournalist Loren McIntyre’s accounts of his time spent among the mystical Mayoruna
John Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St.. FIND TICKETS 212-239-6200