Review: ‘The Encounter’ at The Golden Theatre in NYC

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Simon McBurney is one of European theatre’s most original and controversial artists working today. For more than 30 years he has led Complicite, the theatre company he co-founded in 1983 and his works have been seen in London’s National Theatre and the Barbican Center as well as throughout Europe. He’s also done a good deal of acting in British films and TV productions. He tells us that he has spent his life being disreputable, and he  is still considered an outsider.

Simon McBurney in 'The Encounter.' Photo by Joan Marcus.
Simon McBurney in ‘The Encounter.’ Photo by Joan Marcus.

Judging by The Encounter, which has transferred to the Golden Theatre on Broadway from the Donmar Warehouse in London, one can readily see why that’s so. As conceived, directed and performed by Mr. McBurney, he’s given himself a role in a one-man play which takes us with him on a wild ride on the Amazon River via an explorer’s journey to a remote tribe in Brazil. He puts his odyssey inside the audiences’ heads as he supplies each of us with  headphones from which we hear the voices of all the characters he comes across, including Loren McIntyre, a National Geographic photographer who found himself lost among the people of the remote Jamari Valley in Brazil. It was an encounter that would change his life, bringing the limits of human consciousness into startling focus.

Sometimes we are in the middle of a group, now  and then someone crops up behind or beside us, thus bringing order and power to the avalanche of words that he whispers, bellows, shrieks, and murmurs to us. Simon McBurney delivers a tour de force performance, one he shares on occasion with another actor, Richard Katz, who plays the role at a handful of midweek performances, so Mr. McBurney can catch his breath.

His telling takes just under two hours, and it comes at us without an intermission, so it’s somewhat overwhelming. At times, the story was difficult for me to follow, as it contains conversations with people we’ve never seen, and I found the exchanges confusing. There are some charming chit chats with the narrator’s tiny daughter, and McBurney’s captured the little girl totally with just his voice. But then, he does equally well with all his  characters. He feels that an American audience will come to the play without preconceptions, with a sense of adventure. He wants to “entertain and surprise.”

It is all played out on a virtually bare stage, which means it’s best to absorb this material with your eyes closed, so that it takes on the aspect of a dream. With effective use of sound effects, it is far more successful at creating images than it would be if one watched the Narrator running around making animal noises; grunts, wheezes, and roars to conjure up our own images — looking at the star on stage will only destroy  them. The sound design by Garth Fry and Pete Malkin as well as the projections by Will Duke are extraordinary.

I left the theatre with a “How does he do it?” question rattling around my brain, which it shared with another question,”Why does he do it?!” It will be interesting to discover if the American audiences give Mr. McBurney what he believes and hopes they will deliver – a suspension of disbelief and the willingness to listen to rather than totally experience his play. For me, the evening was very much like watching a brilliant actor play all the roles in a radio program, one which contained vividly drawn characters and an exotic and original setting.

Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.

The Encounter is playing at The Golden Theatre – 252 West 45th Street
(Between Broadway and 8th Avenue), in New York City. For tickets, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or 800-447-7400, or purchase them online.

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Richard Seff
RICHARD SEFF has been working in theatre since he made his acting debut in support of Claude Rains in the prize winning DARKNESS AT NOON, and he agreed to tour the next season in support of Edward G. Robinson, which took him across the nation and back for nine months. When it was over and he was immediately offered another national tour with THE SHRIKE with Van Heflin, he decided to explore other areas, and he spent the next 22 years representing artists in the theatre as an agent, where he worked at Liebling-Wood, MCA, eventually a partnership of his own called Hesseltine-Bookman and Seff, where he discovered and developed young talents like Chita Rivera, John Kander, Fred Ebb, Ron Field, Linda Lavin, Nancy Dussault and many others. He ultimately sold his interest to ICM. When he completed his contractual obligation to that international agency, he returned to his first love, acting and writing for the theatre. In that phase of his long and varied life, he wrote a comedy (PARIS IS OUT!) which brightened the 1970 season on Broadway for 107 performances. He became a successful supporting player in film, tv and onstage, and ultimately wrote a book about his journey, SUPPORTING PLAYER: MY LIFE UPON THE WICKED STAGE, still popular with older theatre lovers and youngsters who may not yet know exactly where they will most sensibly and profitably fit into the world of show business. The book chronicles a life of joyous work working in a favored profession in many areas, including leading roles in the regional theatres in his work in Lanford Wilson's ANGELS FALL. His last stage role was in THE COUNTESS in which he played Mr. Ruskin for 9 months off Broadway. Five seasons ago Joel Markowitz suggested he join him at DCTheatreScene. His accurate and readable reviews of the New York Scene led, when the time was right, for his joining DCMetroTheaterArts to continue bringing news of the Big Apple's productions just to keep you posted. He is delighted to be able to join DCMTA and work with Joel and hopes that you like what he has to say.

1 COMMENT

  1. That show was so totally audio that a stage production is senseless. A recording with stereo headphones at home would be the same only more comfortable in a recliner and the ability to take a break from the constant sounds, not counting taking a bathroom break.

    The Beatles “revolution number nine” cut must have been the inspiration. But that was only 10 minutes. Have a toke before you go.

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