THEATER ON TAPE
Once the mainstay of fringe festivals and performance art houses, one-person plays showcasing the likes of James Whitmore and Lily Tomlin became financially viable in the latter quarter of the twentieth century, but they were rare. Given the financial constraints of modern theater, however, solo shows are cropping up like opium poppies in Afghanistan, and are even being added to the seasons of regional theaters. Of the hundreds I’ve seen, rarely are the monologues themselves great plays; they’re more about the performers and their issues than storytelling. Audiences have become more savvy (or spoiled, actually), so unless you can hire Bette Midler, a solo show needs to be more than a kooky gal imitating her friends and family.
Leave it to actor/writer/director Simon McBurney, co-founder of the awesome British theater company Complicite, to come up with a swell idea that propels the solo show to the next level. I’ve seen snippets of what he brings to the Wallis for a short run through April 16, but never all in one show. Inspired by Petru Popescu’s book Amazon Beaming, McBurney takes us on a sensorial adventure deep in the Amazonian jungle, telling the story of National Geographic photojournalist Loren McIntyre’s 1969 encounter with an indigenous tribe that must consistently outrun those who are destroying rainforests for commerce. Woven into the superb storytelling are themes of activism, fatherhood, solitude, community and more; as with Tom Stoppard, McBurney also investigates more abstract themes, including time and cognizance; and like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, he explores madness, imperialism, survival, and mankind’s hypocrisy, ambiguity, and moral confusion.
Complicite has always been about the intersection of the cerebral, physical, and technological worlds, and The Encounter sits squarely at those crossroads. The indefatigable McBurney is not the only star; the other is the sound design by Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin, without which we have no show. Each patron wears a headphone, which allows for binaural sound, meaning separate sounds are piped into left and right ears, a.k.a. a 3-D soundscape.
Throughout the story, McBurney creates sound effects through a head-shaped microphone: the audience was positively giddy when he blew seemingly hot breath into one ear and—using a hand-held recorder—created an uncannily real mosquito buzzing around your head. Using pre-recorded material (including his own voice), we can also see him bounding about the stage acting as a sound mixer (looping, overlapping, repeat functions) and a Foley artist who uses tousled videotape, crinkly empty plastic bottles, and a bag of Cheetos to great effect.
Thus is born an immersive narrative the likes of which you’ve never seen, or shall I say heard, before. When McIntyre espies three of the famous “cat people” of the Amazon, he grabs his camera and film, leaves his camp by the river, and follows them. Within minutes, he is lost, but his determination to capture images of this elusive tribe draws him ever deeper into the jungle. Swiftly and completely, we are absorbed into this foreign world even as we watch the magician reveal his tricks; it’s a coup de théâtre that this artifice evokes palpable fear and suspense in the viewer.
McBurney narrates, plays McIntyre with a deep American voice, and seamlessly shifts back and forth from his home studio in London (where he is constantly interrupted by his 5-year-old daughter) to the trippy goings on at the border of Brazil and Peru: McIntyre cannot speak to the Mayoruna in Portuguese or English, so he communicates telepathically with Barnacle, the tribe’s leader, as they move away from developers and toward a place that the tribe believes represents the beginning of time.
But the play, co-directed by Kirsty Housley, relies so heavily on sonic splicing and aural gimmickry that it doesn’t end the adventure in an implicitly promised and much-needed consciousness-raising of some kind. McBurney’s obsessive journey in creating the show spliced with his daughter’s innocence and the photographer’s journey don’t blend into a successful play, and because of this the event doesn’t stick. Additionally, the show, at 2 hours, feels overlong and taxing. Also basically ineffective is Will Duke’s backwall projections, which could have aided greatly during McIntyre’s hallucinations. And just when full sensation takes over (I swear that I could smell burning Adidas shoes and feel maggots cannibalizing my arms), McBurney rips off his shirt; at almost 60, he seems to be in fairly good shape but the contours of his body are distracting.
Still, the sensual evocation of a steamy-hot liana-filled bug-rich environment, and the perilous wonderment of a man caught between two worlds, is a sight to see, um, hear.
photos by Rob Latour
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
Bram Goldsmith Theater
9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd in Beverly Hills
ends on April 16, 2017
for tickets ($25 – $100; subject to change), call 310.746.4000 or visit The Wallis