Following your ears back to the beginning

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Okay, you need to stop what you're doing and go buy a ticket to see The Encounter at The Wallis. No, really, I mean it. It's only here through this Sunday and the show will change the way you listen.

The gateway to The Encounter's world is a pair of headphones and what looks like a mannequin's head propped on a stand center stage. The headphones are waiting at your seat. Every audience member gets a pair. You're instructed to put them on during the pre-show to make sure they work -- "You should be hearing my voice in your left ear" ..."now, you should be hearing my voice in your right ear."

As our guide and lone actor, Simon McBurney, comes onstage as the audience is still trickling in, he begins telling us about late-comers, something about his iPhone, pictures of his daughter . . . it feels accidental, extraneous but as you'll later realize its all part of a grand plan. Mr. McBurney, who's also the director of the show and Theatre Complicite, the British company that created it, explains that mannequin center stage is actually a binaural microphone designed to create essentially a three-dimensional image for your ears. Sort of like a high-tech audio version of a Viewmaster. He demonstrates by whispering in one ear of the mannequin's head, then the other. The sound is piped into our headphones and we begin imagining this other spatial, auditory world. He even blows into the audience's collective ear. It's shockingly intimate. He's getting into our heads.

Now, if this all sounds like a gimmick, stick with me. In lesser hands it would be but what Mr. McBurney creates across two hours is remarkable and profoundly theatrical.

The story he's come to share with us is a journey into the Amazon jungle by a National Geographic photographer, Loren McIntyre. With a little more audio wizardry, Mr. McBurney will serve both as our narrator, and roughly an octave lower with broader American vowels, this photographer - who has come in search of the Mayoruna tribe. As we venture into the jungle, the soundscape envelopes us. A swarming mosquito is brought to life by a tiny handheld speaker that swoops around the mannequin's head. And this is part of the show's genius, not that mosquito, but the performative virtuosity of all this technology.

This isn't like a pair of disembodied VR goggles for your ears that are controlled by some far off digital genius. There's a touch of that but the magic of the show is watching Mr. McBurney athletically perform all these auditory wonders and take us on a journey that encompasses more than just sound. This isn't a show only for the ears. The space is transformed as much through this actor's performance and our imaginations as that pair of headphones. We're being invited through technology to buy into a fiction. To hear a story about going back to the beginning.

It's a story and a performance that you can't miss. Trust me.

The Encounter plays through this Sunday at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time: 2 hours with no intermission.

Photo: Simon McBurney  (Rob Latour)