Entering the Curran theatre’s gorgeously renovated house to a see a performance of The Encounter, one is immediately struck by the presence of headphones at every seat in the house. Listening devices have become commonplace in the modern theatre world for hard of hearing patrons, but this appears to be something new entirely. Indeed, The Encounter, a one-man show directed and performed by one Simon McBurney, uses headphones for the show’s entire sonic output, which uses a variety of sound effects and binaural microphones onstage to create a sort of soundscape to accompany the relatively minimal action that happens onstage.
If this sounds like a gimmick, well, it both is and isn’t. On the one hand, the usage of headphones allows a talking point for audience members to bring home with them, doubtlessly intriguing their friends and coworkers to see just how a play can use personal sound to create a unique experience. On the other hand, McBurney and sound designers Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin use binaural sound in a seemingly endlessly creative number of ways, to the point where the play and the gimmick become totally intertwined. The Encounter, based on the nonfiction novel by Petru Popescu, tracks the real life journey by National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre in 1969 to find and photograph indigenous peoples of the region and who there has a sort-of mystical experience. Though the set includes not much more than a desk, assorted microphones and various noise-making props, you’ll be surprised even at yourself by just how deeply immersed you are able to become in the strange and intoxicating jungle of McBurney’s design.
One-man shows are tricky, especially when written, directed, and performed by the same person, because all three elements have to work with each other and the performer must be equally adept at staging; the director must be equally adept at writing. Thankfully, McBurney is up to snuff on all counts. An excellent actor, his performance, both as McIntyre and as a fictionalized version of himself, who talks nonchalantly to the audience as well as remembers a past when he was attempting to write the show before our eyes, is roundly convincing and emotionally true. His staging is clear and focused, allowing the play to maintain clarity even without the crutch of the sound, and his musings on the nature of time and western imperialism are insightful and clever.
The problem with the production lies in the nature of one-person shows, which are fundamentally undramatic by nature. All conversations have to be narrated, all physical sense of conflict is lost, meaning that most solo shows have to get by on their ability to be witty and conversational, or they have to be over and done with quickly enough for the audience not to crave something to hold on to. The Encounter sets up a phenomenal level of mood, and had the play ended in eighty minutes, I’d doubtless be telling readers to run to the Curran as fast as possible to see something truly like nothing else seen before. However, The Encounter runs a full 110 minutes without an intermission, making it at least half an hour too long, and a half an hour in which not much is developed and much is lost by the tedium that sets in. It’s still fun to watch how clever McBurney can be, but the drama is never developed, and so the experience becomes almost exasperating by the time the final lights die down.
You have to see The Encounter. By the time it’s over, you’ll be checking your watch a little too eagerly, but that first hour or so is an experience that couldn’t be traded for anything else in the world.
The Encounter plays at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco through May 7th. Tickets and information available here.