Reviewed by Terry Morgan
Complicite at The Wallis Annenberg Center
Through April 16th.
The good thing about experimental theatre is the thrill of something new, the excitement of exploring radical new territory. The downside, of course, is that not every experiment is completely successful, or — even if something valuable is discovered — it may not provide a wholly satisfying piece of theatre. Such is the case with Complicite’s production of The Encounter at the Wallis, which has fun with binaural sound technology, but within a show that has major problems.
Director/performer Simon McBurney tells the story of American photographer Loren McIntyre, who in 1969 got lost in the Amazon rainforest. He ended up finding a tribe, the Mayoruna, and stayed with them for a time to survive. At first, he tried to document his stories with photos, but after his camera broke, he had to learn to communicate differently. Specifically, this was through the tribe’s headman, whom Loren referred to as Barnacle. Loren claimed that Barnacle could speak to him telepathically, and that his experience with the group changed his views on reality.
One cannot critique McBurney’s performance without describing it in the context of this unusual production. The audience is given earphones to wear, and McBurney speaks into multiple microphones that alter his voice in various ways. These vocal tracks are combined with sound effects, pre-recorded audio from other people, and music. McBurney’s main vocal performance is a rendering of McIntyre, accomplished through a filter that lowers his voice and makes him sound uncannily (if randomly) like Liam Neeson. His performance is fine, although I never observed any growth or change in the character (even though we’re told his whole worldview is changing). Perhaps the technology used here is responsible for the blandness.
As a director, McBurney seems more concerned with the aural experience than the total theatrical experience; the whole thing seems more like a communal listening to an audiobook by the audience rather than a play. In terms of staging, the visual component generally consists of McBurney walking around the stage, with some occasional projections. This might have been forgivable if the show had been shorter, but at two hours with no intermission it quickly becomes tedious. Also, as a story, one’s appreciation may depend on how much one buys into the Carlos Casteneda-esque vibe of doing drugs and finding “greater truths.”
So, as an exercise in 3D sound technology, The Encounter is a successful experiment — but as a theatrical production, the results are definitely mixed.
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills; Tues.-Fri. 8 p.m.; Sat. 2 p.m. & 8 p.m.; Sun. 2 p.m.; through April 16. www.TheWallis.org/Encounter. Running time: 2 hours with no intermission.