Category Archive for: ‘Victor Cordell’

The Encounter

Simon McBurney. Photo by T. Kenton.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Encounter: 1. to meet, as an adversary or enemy 2. to come upon or experience especially unexpectedly (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).

Some theater goers will attend The Encounter with limited advance information. They will soon find that the central narrative concerns the true exploits of Loren McIntyre, a freelance photographer and writer. In 1969, he ventured into the Amazon jungle for National Geographic, in search of an elusive tribe with virtually no outside world contact, the Mayoruna. The encounter is chilling, even with the presumed knowledge that McIntyre survived the ordeal.

The other encounter is an experience unique to live theater goers. Incredibly precise surround sound – the aural equivalent of 3-D – transmits a super reality to each seat through headphones. The confluence of these two encounters furnishes an evening of remarkable entertainment.

McBurney and the microphone head. Photo by Robbie Jack.

English theatrical all-arounder Simon McBurney is the brain behind this special theatrical event. The genesis was his reading Petru Posescu’s book Amazon Beaming about McIntryre’s expeditions, which the artist vowed to bring to the stage. He succeeds with a striking one-man show of unusual depth and character.

In this account, McIntyre explores uncharted Amazonian jungle from his camp site, glimpsing what he thinks is a Mayoruna on the move. Throwing caution to the wind, he stalks his quarry without provisions or the ability to leave path markers. Soon he realizes that if he survives his imprudence, he will be unable to find his way back. He also knows that he must protect his assets – his camera and three rolls of film. Without visual evidence of his find, he cannot corroborate his journey. He would have nothing to offer National Geographic, his paymaster and the exemplar for nature photojournalism throughout its history.

McIntyre learns about the uncontacted tribe, but he suffers harrowing episodes and loss. Yet even the darkest moments offer humor. He is unable to communicate with the tribespeople, and in one episode, he fears that they are planning his demise. He must convince them that he possesses magic and can’t be messed with. So he walks briskly around the tribe’s campfire twenty times, incanting, as if putting a hex on the tribe. What happens? The chief walks around the campfire twenty times in the opposite direction, incanting, as if undoing the hex! So, there!

During the show, McBurney intersperses the explorer’s story with mundane events from his own domestic life, like babysitting his daughter who won’t go to sleep. He also demonstrates the sound design and system to amazement and laughter.

The sound team spent time in the Amazon recording birds, monkeys, rushing water, and rustling leaves, with the result that the listener feels totally immersed in the jungle. The locational capability of the system is highly refined. Early in the performance, when a voice seems to be coming from the rear, many audience members turn their heads to try to face it. The sound of mosquitos swirling about induces some to swat at the sham intruders.

The microphone head looks out at the audience. Photo by Guy Coletta.

McBurney’s performance is a tour de force. Alone on the Curran’s vast, low-lit stage with minimal props – mostly a table, water bottles, and microphones – the actor casts a spell over the audience. At times, he shifts back and forth between two microphones, with one projecting his natural, light, English accented voice and the other a deep, near reverberating voice in an American accent to depict McIntyre. The actor shows his chops in the jungle segments when he depicts the explorer’s excitement, fear, rage, and relief.

So, is The Encounter a sign of theater to come? Probably more no than yes, at least for the time being. The hardware required to support such an event is expensive, and it does require extra technicians and compelling prerecorded sound. It will work best when the content of the story drives the technology, which is a wonderful fit for this work.

Special kudos to Carole Shorenstein Hays for her brilliant vision and commitment to San Francisco culture. The renovation of the Curran is a stunning achievement – an absolute jewel of a theatrical space. Her series of innovative Under Construction productions set the stage (pun intended) for this unique offering and reflect her daring and savvy.

The Encounter by Complicite and Simon McBurney is produced by and plays at the Curran Theater, 445 Geary Street, San Francisco, through May 7, 2017.

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