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An Encounter with the Simon McBurney Sound Machine

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The night after attending The Encounter, Simon McBurney’s one-man journey in sound, I dreamt of rivers overflowing their banks in India, a place I’ve never been. In a separate bed across town, the friend I brought with me also dreamt of rivers that night. His were located in Latin America, where he used to live. Had some kind of telepathic exchange taken place, a message sent to our gray matter from that darkened stage? Loren McIntyre, the late photographer and protagonist of McBurney’s eco-theater piece, wouldn’t have any doubts about it.

McBurney, listed as director-performer, has reshaped Petru Popescu’s Amazon Beaming, a book of interviews the author conducted with McIntyre over three years. But The Encounter only focuses on one incident. And that one, without 3D audio technology amplifying it in your ears, is a tough sell. The believable part of the story is that while on assignment in the Amazon rainforest in 1969, McIntyre gets lost. There’s also evidence that he met an indigenous tribe there, the Mayoruna. The flimflammery appears in the form of extrasensory perception, better-known as ESP.

(Robbie Jack)

After some initial wariness on both sides, McIntyre bonds with the tribe’s chief shaman. Then the uncanny occurs: the chief speaks telepathically to a bewildered McIntyre. McBurney re-created this special effect via binaural microphones in the shape of a dummy’s head. The actor circled that head like an anonymous god whispering in the audience’s ears (a pair of headphones comes attached to the back of every seat). These specially designed microphones make the listener feel like the voice we’re hearing is inside our heads. He also used a second microphone that deepened his voice when he stepped into character. When he stepped back inside himself, McBurney added in meta elements of his own life.

Running parallel to McIntyre’s misadventures in the wilderness is McBurney’s own writing process in developing The Encounter. At home, he’s regularly interrupted by his young daughter who refuses to go to sleep. On stage, McBurney’s paternal self interacts sweetly with a recording of her voice. Apart from a table, the set design consists of an array of bottled waters strewn about. This visual minimalism made watching the show less of a necessity. For long stretches, I closed my eyes as if listening to a podcast performed live in front of me. It felt as if McBurney was reading out bedtime stories, one a fable set in an emerald forest and a second to send his daughter into dreamland.

The unhappy meeting between the modern and the ancient world is where the two stories overlapped on stage. As developers cut down the rainforests, they’re also destroying the Mayoruna’s habitat. The forest is their home. By bringing his daughter into the narrative, he’s reminding us of future generations who will inherit the imperiled earth. With a brief aside about the Dakota Pipeline, he also finds a correspondence between indigenous populations on two different continents. McIntyre’s story takes place at the birth of the ecological movement. McBurney updates that photographer’s self-mythologizing by experimenting with sonic technology. You can take or leave the funny business about mental telepathy but the message hasn’t changed, only the climate has.

The Encounter, through May 7, at The Curran, 445 Geary St., 415-358-1220 or sfcurran.com

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Jeffrey Edalatpour

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