In his seminal 1969 theater-industry tome The Season, author William Goldman classifies a certain breed of shows as a "snob hit." "The power of the production must be British," Goldman writes, continuing, "It must manage somehow to be at least a little unintelligible…The audience that goes to the Snob Hit must be convinced that the 'average' theatergoer wouldn't understand it."
These particular bullet points accurately describe (though simultaneously diminish the achievements of) the first new nonmusical of 2016-17, The Encounter, at the John Golden Theatre. Yes, it's British. At times it's hard to follow. And it might prove too difficult an evening for people just looking for a night on the town. But this solo show is also a dazzlingly disorienting head-trip, a two-hour immersion into uncharted territory that ups the ante on one of the most vital theatrical-design elements: sound.
Inspired by true events contained in Petru Popescu's book Amazon Beaming, The Encounter is a brainchild of the British theatrical troupe Complicite, known for finding innovative ways of staging complex ideas through contemporary technology, and theatermaker Simon McBurney, a Tony nominee most recognizable in America for his work as a cinematic character actor in films like Body of Lies and The Theory of Everything. The book tells the story of Loren McIntyre, a National Geographic photojournalist who discovered the source of the Amazon River, made contact with an aboriginal tribe called the Mayoruna, and inadvertently took on a central role in one of their mythical rituals.
In The Encounter, McBurney simultaneously documents McIntyre's journey while also exploring the way our perceptions of reality are shaped through various means of storytelling. With the help of sound designers Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin, The Encounter uses a system of binaural surround sound to place us right in the middle of the action. The stage is basically empty except for a series of microphones and enough bottles of water to slake the thirst of the entire audience. With McBurney wearing street clothes, all we need is our mere imagination and the pair of headphones strapped to the back of our seat.
The experience of the show is akin to watching a live performance of a radio play. If our eyes are closed, it's as if we really are running through the jungle. The dry leaves rustle under our feet as we make our way through the trees looking for shelter. We hear mosquitos buzz around us as rain pelts down at a frenzied pace. The water babbles uncontrollably. If our eyes are open, we realize there are no trees or animals or tributaries. The leaves are merely strips of tape from old VHS cassettes. The bugs are sound effects made by blowing through a comb onto greaseproof paper. The river is nothing more than a Poland Spring bottle being shaken up.
The Encounter is a show designed for the people who go to the theater in the hopes of being transported to an abstract world (projections by Will Duke and lighting by Paul Anderson turn Michael Levine's recording studio of a set into a Magic Eye puzzle that further distorts our sensitivities). If you're not willing to let your mind run wild — heck, if you even take the headphones off at any point — you will lose the full effect.
Becoming a one-man Foley Artist (aided by an offstage team who creates the rest of the magic), McBurney's performance is a marvel of athleticism as he bounds around the stage from microphone to microphone. But it's way too easy, sitting in the dark being lulled by sound machines, to drift off for extended periods. The show feels much too long and, at points, way too heady.
In an intriguing but ultimately damaging twist, McBurney breaks up the McIntyre narrative with an ongoing magician's reveal of how this sculpted sound technology works. If this were a Ted Talk, it would be fascinating, but stage drama it isn't. For the non-techies among us, it's too distancing when the creators are striving to build an experience of shared intimacy. Similarly, the purpose of McIntyre's journey, to document a tribe of people untouched by the rest of civilization, is strangely at odds with a production that uses an avalanche of the latest cutting-edge techniques to tell the story, but never comments on the juxtaposition. However, it's an easy inconsistency to overlook in the grand scheme. Fry and Malkin's exceptionally crafted soundscape is so far beyond excellent that it becomes the singular proof (and hopefully a reminder to the Tony Awards Administration Committee) of how valuable sound designers are in helping to create theater.
Whether The Encounter becomes a "hit," or even finds an audience, remains to be seen, but there's something wonderful about seeing its marquee among more commercial shows like The Color Purple and Kinky Boots. As Broadway is inundated with starry revivals and big familiar musicals, it's heartening to see a group of producers willing to take a risk on an original show that's so unlike everything else around. While The Encounter ticks nearly all of the boxes of "snob hit," it ends up a breath of fresh air for audience members who believe in theater's ability to push boundaries.