You might recognize the face of Simon McBurney from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but you’re more likely to recognize the distinct tenor of his voice. His harsh, drawn-out whispers breathe life into the House-Elf Kreacher in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, but his characteristically dignified English demeanor can be found in every role he inhabits. His vocal cords are his primary tool in The Encounter, a play which he conceived and continues to perform entirely as a solo act, and his zealous physicality would be of equal note were it not for how his voice is channeled.
Enter the John Golden Theatre in the heart of Broadway and you’re greeted with old-world stylings; swirls of gold adorning walls that have housed nearly a century of performance art, but under its ornate chandelier you will find, attached to your seat with a belt of grey elastic, a pair of headphones connected to the sound system. Downstage, a workshop-like plastic desk and table lamp prevent the right-hand-side curtain from closing. Water bottles lie scattered across the floor, as if we’ve walked into a work in progress, and at the center of the performance space stands the most curious of objects: a head on a stick resembling a crash-test dummy, like some modern, technological totem pole.
This, as it turns out, is a microphone, aligned with the left and right ears of the devices found strewn on every seat. It’s one of several mics planted across the stage, and its primary purpose is to pull us, the audience, deeper into an experience unlike any other.
McBurney, dressed as casually as his surroundings, takes the stage as the house lights are still up and people still shuffle in. He asks the audience to turn off their cellular devices and helps them check their headphones, a precursor to the play and yet the starting point of the play itself, blending into his rant about the wonders and pitfalls of modern technology. Rather than a winking “gotcha,” The Encounter begins with a re-orienting of the agreed upon parameters of fictional storytelling, before pummeling the unsuspecting spectators with new layers to the story within story within story, and so forth. He tells a tale of the Mayoruna, the primitive “cat people” of Amazonia believed to be able to communicate telepathically, but he tells it as it was told him by a friend and academic, in turn recounted by the real-life explorer Loren McIntyre. He weaves between these layers using forms that are both modern and ancient, recalling the friendly conversation which he recorded on his iPhone (playing just underneath the length of the entire narrative, as if it were supplementary information to the show’s main story), but re-contextualizing the tale as a bedtime story to his daughter (a recorded character he interacts with), before finally reaching all the way down into the depths of this meta-narrative and re-enacting McIntyre’s encounter himself.
One stage mic set up near the table presents McBurney as he is. The one next to it lowers his voice by several octaves (or so he claims; the layers of this illusion are intentionally ill-defined) as he speaks into it in an American accent that makes him sound like Scott Glenn, the voice he uses for McIntyre when he isn’t narrating as McBurney. He begins this tale seated at the table in the corner, speaking directly into the mics (and into our ears) not unlike an afternoon radio host, but as he begins moving about the stage, looping sounds using various foot pedals – at one point, the rustle of a bag of potato chips transforms into the clearing of leaves – his narrations blend into one another, as do the layers upon layers of his story.
Loren McIntyre is never on stage. He died in 2003, and this version of him is an alluring yet Brechtian fiction, brought to life in stages by an actor. And yet, the unassuming McBurney’s very physicality shifts along with his voice; or perhaps it’s just our perception of his presence based on what he’s told us. Sometimes he narrates the story as McBurney. Sometimes McIntyre tells his own tale. Sometimes both. Sometimes he interacts with tribesmen he’s recorded (his own voice, recorded nonetheless) but sometimes he embodies them too. There are moments where he forces the audience to acknowledge these layers, playing fun tricks that border on absurdity, mouthing recordings of himself and stopping suddenly as they continue to play, just to see who notices, but this playful sleight of voice soon gives way to a more serious, perhaps even more spiritual experience.
The lights dim and the sounds become an enveloping atmosphere, with raindrops right in your ear as McIntyre interacts with a primitive people at the end of an arduous journey. This journey is physical no doubt, as he moves with them through space and time as McBurney stands mostly still, but the end of the journey involves a sort of spiritual nirvana, a return to some undefined cultural beginning or “oneness” that the American explorer doesn’t fully understand. He channels their culture through his own experience, even re-enacting the very destruction of the United States (McBurney notes this plot point’s similarity to recent events; his performance is an act of constant creation that benefits from timely updates), and as the backdrop’s interlocked panels take on new shapes and meanings based on the way light bounces off them, so too does McBurney’s narrative depending on where he throws his sound.
As he stands right by the disembodied stage head, his voice feels like a comforting whisper, and his recordings of rain and insects played off a handheld loudspeaker must come to us indirectly (through the mic in question before entering our headphones), but other atmospheric sounds during pivotal moments hit directly from the stage, breaking even the show’s headphone-conceit as McBurney simultaneously re-enforces it, yelling at the head from far away, switching off his lapel and making the ears of the audience believe him to be off in the distance. Just as Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye To Language used 3D to alter the way we saw cinema, The Encounter contorts theatre’s auditory elements and mirrors them with the layers of story itself, bringing into constant question the nature of authorial voice and the embellishment of real events.
To what end, one might ask? As a straightforward story, the events retold (and re-retold) in The Encounter are intriguing and powerful enough on their own. But amidst this multitudinous and ingenious sound gimmickry, McBurney unearths a key facet of the very text he’s manipulating, and that’s our perception of stories themselves. By recalling experiences and relaying them through layers, he’s creating fictional constructs around cultures – both the Mayoruna’s as well as our own – something we’ve done since the beginning of humanity to reflect our collective experiences, only here he’s forcing our minds and our souls to push through these layers, raking our way through the fields of fiction in order to better understand the individual elements that lay beneath. A white man running in circles in the middle of an imaginary forest is no longer merely a funny sight, but a desperate attempt to communicate, to the Mayoruna and to us. A desperation that we feel through every breath, as if it were our own.
McBurney builds both sound and performance in front of our very eyes, as if the story’s construction and critical de-construction were one and the same process. He lambasts the pitfalls of a digital world while using the digital itself to espouse simpler times, or rather, simpler feelings and perspectives that we don’t need to destroy our iPhones in order to return to. A togetherness of shared experience, much like the theatre, enhanced by modern technology.
The Encounter runs on Broadway until January 8th.