With his intense eyes, dimpled chin and thatch of hair, Simon McBurney has a chameleonic look that shifts imperceptibly from innocent to sinister, enchanted to terrified, that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen him onscreen: He played Colin Firth’s illusionist sidekick in Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight and the father of Eddie Redmayne’s Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, among many other roles. But it’s as a theater magician that he is best known, the creative and onstage engine behind Complicite (originally Théâtre de Complicite), the London-based company he co-founded in 1983 and which has toured such mesmerizing works as The Street of Crocodiles and Mnemonic.
Complicite has been in the vanguard of merging technology and performance, and its latest work, The Encounter, which has just opened on Broadway at the John Golden Theatre, is the most audacious immersion yet into an artificially intelligent new theater. A solo show in which McBurney portrays many characters in wildly different locations, you might think of it, as I did, as a particularly inventive episode of A Prairie Home Companion as conceived and directed by Carlos Castaneda. It’s a mindblower.
McBurney’s inspiration is The Encounter: Amazon Beaming, Petru Popescu’s account of American photographer Loren McIntyre. His search for the source of the Amazon River leads him to the Mayoruna, a tribe whose affinity for decorating their faces with spikes embedded in their flesh led to their nickname the “cat people.” McIntyre’s relationship to these people unconnected to the outside world takes him deep into the jungle, where he’s introduced to flesh-devouring bugs, menacing jaguars and thieving monkeys, as well as a feral community whose elders communicate telepathically (thus the title). Man and nature conspire to scare the crap — not to mention the occasional blood and guts – out of McIntyre as his alliances within the tribe shift and his personal belief system takes a mighty spin.
All of this is conveyed ingeniously by McBurney in an attic set as he re-creates for us the story through the use of much electronic gear that alters his voice for different characters (including a daughter who refuses to go to sleep and serves as a stand-in for the audience with her constant interruptions to demand some human interaction). We, by the way, are given headphones to achieve the full, sensurround effect, even as we watch McBurney step in a spaghetti of recording tape for one sound effect, or manipulate various microphones to place us in the center of the action. Some of it is very trippy and might remind viewers of a certain age of the first time they listened to, say, Emerson Lake & Palmer on a very good set of headphones after a mushroom sandwich or two.
The 110-minute show is a wonder, yet I couldn’t help but feel it also was a bit of a con that forced us to pay more attention to the technical gimcrackery than to the extraordinary tale unfolding. Would imaginative staging by, say Julie Taymor or Alex Timbers, with an actual cast, have had as much impact? I’d like to think so. Or, as one British critic noted, after reading Amazon Beaming: “[F]or proof that the same effect can be produced by the rather less advanced method of ink on paper, look no further than this book.”