In 1969, photographer Loren McIntyre was airlifted into, to him, the familiar Amazon jungle in hopes of first contact with the remote Mayoruna tribe. Believing they were descended from jaguars, the indigenous peoples were called “cat people” by westerners because of lips and cheeks pierced with thin wooden spikes resembling whiskers. (An Indian guide who doesn’t appear in this production developed Malaria and was taken back by the pilot who would return in several days.) This is his story.
After a lighthearted introduction to sound equipment, its remarkable ability to deceive and enchant, Simon McBurney takes on both the role of narrator (in his own crisp British) and protagonist (in an American accent), seamlessly sliding between the two as he expansively enacts and, before our eyes, manipulates what we hear with multiple methods.
McIntyre follows tribesmen so intent on experience, he neglects to mark his path. “…400 miles of jungle in every direction…” Click, click sounds the camera as he describes what he sees and thinks. “It all exuded a tense febrile stillness.” Arriving in what appears to be a half built village, he encounters a hostile tribesman he calls “Red Cheeks,” and the group’s prudent headman, “Barnacle,” named for prominent warts. He’s given a hammock and briefly ignored. “I don’t want these people inundated by outsiders. Hopefully my effect would be limited.” Naïve.
Exhausted and hungry, he has no way to make himself understood. Monkeys destroy McIntyre’s camera and film. Vivid dreams begin. Silent communication resembling telepathy (“beaming”) passes from Barnacle to the interloper. He intuits the message “Some of us are friends” as well as extreme wariness of white men based on violent history. When the headman publicly seems to cast a spell, McIntyre cleverly responds with what appears to be one of his own. Thought processes, evoked feelings, and choice is remarkable.
The unwitting guest questions his own purpose and identity. Partial recordings of scientists commenting on the encounter “If we decide to never contact tribes anymore, we will never find out…” color what occurs. McBurney’s five year-old daughter intermittently also interrupts, requiring attention. (She sounds like she’s directly behind or beside one.) Perhaps the little girl is meant to break tension or show the illusive or personal nature of reality.
We hear insects, animals, rushing water, torrential rain, native language; one voice becomes dozens, sometimes murmuring, at others angrily contradicting. The Mayoruna simplify their lives by destroying first the village and later all their belongings in order to return to the beginning of time. Red Cheeks attempts to kill McIntyre resulting in a grisly scenario. Natural hallucinogens are vividly experienced. (Shades of Carlos Castaneda) “Until just hours ago, I was a modern man.” Senses are heightened. Sufi-like, the once-photographer hypnotically dances with the tribe. “I want to know about time and its source.”
An accidental escape occurs during a flood or we wouldn’t have the story. In 1971, McIntyre returned to The Andes discovering what he could of the beginning, the source of The Amazon River, a lake now known as Laguna McIntyre. The Encounter, first published in 1991, has been reprinted in conjunction with this show.
This is a unique theatrical experience. It might be compared to a live radio broadcast aided and abetted by contemporary audio were McBurney’s role not so emphatically physical. Close your eyes occasionally. Visual imagination provides. The story is fascinating, the script visceral and intimate, if a tad long. Acting is a tour de force.
The Encounter is well served by Sound Designers Gareth Fry and Pete Makin. This is unquestionably the best and most intricate you’ll hear to date. Paul Anderson’s Lighting Design also adds immeasurably creating space and mood on an almost empty stage.
I take issue with the woven backdrop which looks too high tech for what’s essentially an organic and mystical tale. (Set Design-Michael Levine)
Photos by Tristram Kenton
The Complicite Production of The Encounter
Inspired by the book Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu
Conceived, Directed and Performed by Simon McBurney
Co-Conceived by Kirsty Housley
252 West 45th Street
Through January 8, 2017