In 2014, the Tony Awards Administration decided that it would no longer recognize sound design on Broadway. In 2016, The Encounteris staging a one-man protest.
An experimental and highly original play, The Encounterrelies on audio wizardry, rather than visual spectacle, to captivate audiences. The production — which opened Sept. 29 at the Golden Theatre — requires the audience to wear headphones. This might seem like it should be happening in a black box in Brooklyn, catering to the podcast crowd, but it miraculously made it to Broadway.
The plot is based on the true story of photojournalist Loren McIntyre, who found himself lost in the Amazon with a native tribe in 1969. For weeks, he relied on them for survival, learning their culture and embarking on a spiritual journey about the origins of mankind. While there’s never any doubt about whether he’ll make it out alive, the tale is rife with tension as McIntyre confronts losing more than his life – like his sanity and sense of self. The show also incorporates flashbacks of actor and director Simon McBurney putting it together through research, interviews and personal introspection.
Perception, experience, belief and the fascinating (and sometimes terrifying) ways our brain works all come into play to create a memorable evening. Though visually spare, the audience experiences visceral reactions to everything from hot breath in their ear to mosquitos flying around the backs of their necks.
One excellent trick is to take your headset off for a few moments during the show, which runs 105 minutes without intermission; the jarring juxtaposition of your immersive sound reality and the silence of the auditorium quickly reveals what an astounding feat the technical team is pulling off. It will also remind you of just how pliant your mind is with new conditions and suggestions, which is central to the play’s themes.
What could have easily been a gimmick is instead a true theatrical experience is elevated by Gareth Fry’s finely tuned sound design, and complete commitment by an extraordinary McBurney. The Tony Awards may no longer value the work of sound designers on Broadway, but there’s every chance the cry to redeem them will finally be heard thanks to The Encounter.
Through Jan. 8, 2017
Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St.