The fall Broadway season has started off in a most unusual way with The Encounter, a sensory and immersive solo show devised by the English theater company Complicite, in which each audience member receives his or her own pair of headphones and then listens to extensive instructions on properly wearing the headphones and monologue filled with binaural sound effects and muddled description for two straight hours. Even if it technically constitutes live theater, it certainly feels like more of a glorified podcast than a play.
On an empty stage that resembles a recording studio, English actor Simon McBurney (artistic director of Complicite) begins by awkwardly expounding on reality, storytelling and time. He also introduces the various microphones (including one shaped like a human head) that allow him to fully control and manipulate our listening experience. He then narrates an adventure saga based upon Amazing Beaming, Petru Popescu’s book about Loren McIntyre, in which an American photojournalist for National Geographic gets lost in the overwhelmingly humid Amazon rainforest and finds himself at the mercy of the Mayouruna, a remote jungle tribe that he cannot communicate with.
The Encounter resembles an interactive, high-tech take on the old-fashioned radio play, with multiple voices, heavy breathing and other sounds fully engulfing the listener. But after a while, the novelty of the “3D audio” wears off and you are left with unending bits of description and empty psychological contemplation. The narrator’s young daughter also makes a few cameos, interrupting her father as he tells the tale.
You can’t help but wonder whether The Encounter was really meant to be experienced live in a Broadway theater. After all, what is there to see besides a handful of lighting effects and McBurney sitting at a desk, drinking water and fiddling around with audio equipment? Wouldn’t it make more sense (and be more cost effective) to listen to the piece with your own headphones on your own time?