Tony Awards spotlight: Simon McBurney mystifies in ‘The Encounter’

The great part about giving a solo performance, is come Tony time, no one can pull focus from you. That will be a major benefit to Simon McBurney as he tries to crack the crowded field for Best Actor in a Play.

McBurney is a world renowned creative force in the theater world. He serves as Artistic Director of the British theatre troupe Complicite (which he also co-founded). When he directed a revival of Eugene Ionesco‘s “The Chairs” for Complicite, the show transferred to Broadway and netted McBurney a Tony nomination for Best Director. McBurney recently researched, wrote, directed and starred in Complicite’s production of “The Encounter.” The play ended its limited engagement in January, but that doesn’t mean Tony nominators should forget about this man’s mesmerizing performance.

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The play details the true story of photojournalist Loren McIntyre, as told in Petru Popescu’s book “Amazon Beaming.” McIntyre becomes lost in the Amazon jungle and stumbles upon the Mayoruna tribe. The leader of these primitive people gives McIntyre a mystical experience that challenges his notions of communication, time, and reality itself.

The production famously gave every audience member a pair of headphones to wear during the production. Through the use of everyday objects, vocal manipulations, and a state of the art sound system, McBurney created a sonic landscape to transport viewers to the jungles of Brazil or a quiet London flat. More than just a gimmick, the design meant the actor had to hurtle himself around the stage in an immensely physical performance. Like many awards bait roles, he created several distinct characters. But McBurney had no costumes or makeup for this feat, just his own mastery of accents and physicality.

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Here’s how some top New York critics praised his performance:

Ben Brantley (NY Times): “It turns out that he’s a world-class head shrinker — and head enlarger, too, an all-purpose mind-bender. He is going to retune, rearrange and reproportion your senses, while taking you places you never expected to visit…And though you first meet Mr. McBurney as a vaguely detached magician M.C., his performance becomes increasingly passionate and physical. He is wrestling with all the elements that go into telling and listening to a story, which includes those transporting moments when the teller becomes the tale.”

David Cote (TimeOut New York): “McBurney, prime mover of the experimental British company Complicite, is a wryly engaging performer who can command an audience by sheer force of voice and intellect.”

Matt Trueman (Variety): “It’s a story told with vivid precision, both linguistic and theatrical. McBurney flies over the Amazon with a bamboo stick for a plane. He takes us right into the rainforest, looping his own animal whoops and insectoid croaks as he circles the stage, rustling plastic for leaves underfoot. The head-mic becomes the shamanic headman. It’s a deeply immersive experience, completely transporting. You seem to fall out of time with McIntyre and McBurney, rapt by this gripping thriller.”

And though his show is closed and his category is filled with famous competition like Mark Ruffalo and Kevin Kline, McBurney’s has a leg up. Not only is he the sole actor, but history shows that Tonys favor performers who also write or direct. When Holland Taylor brought her solo show “Ann” to Broadway, she wound up with a Tony nomination. Bette Midler, Fiona Shaw, and Alan Cumming also starred in solo vehicles that season, yet none were nominated. The difference? Taylor wasn’t just the star, she also wrote the play. McBurney does one better as he wrote, starred in, and directed “The Encounter.” With a creative achievement that huge, the competition should watch out.

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