Review: Harrowing ‘Swept Away’ at Berkeley Rep navigates difficult choices on rough waters

Witnessing the extreme circumstances in “Swept Away” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre is a stressful evening of theatre. Men at sea search for balance on a massive, weather-beaten vessel, then struggle for space on a tiny lifeboat. Viewing such a harrowing story, one can easily become claustrophobic and uncomfortable.

Yet the discomfort that the audience deals with is minimal compared to the authentic uphill pushing that the cast goes through. The grunt and sweat that encompasses four souls who are pushed to the brink of their existence is informed mightily by the down home sounds of the Avett Brothers, the North Carolina duo’s bluegrass catalog that is the muse of the confounding yet scintillating world premiere, one that doesn’t always compel.

Michael Mayer’s tight direction of John Logan’s book and the Avett Brothers’ music is coupled nicely with the sharp movement of choreographer David Neumann. The set design by Rachel Hauck is a show stealer, which inspired quite the post-show gawking session as to how the heck the set did what it did. The beautiful lighting design from Kevin Adams captures beautifully the way light hits the sea at different times of the day. 

The distillation of ideas that leads to such a powerful twist in the narrative are presented in jovial ways at the onset of the 90 uninterrupted minutes once the flashback begins. While Mate (John Gallagher, Jr.) prepares to transition out of this world while lying in a tuberculosis ward, the three spirits of Big Brother (Stark Sands), Little Brother (Adrian Blake Enscoe) and Captain (Wayne Duvall) prepare him, and before you know it, it is 1888 and the sea beckons, taking the audience back to where the unenviable end actually begins.

The men who brave the ferocity of the sea on a massive whaling boat live in two distinct worlds. The first is how they approach their life’s work, dancing around, taking in the stars, leaning in heavily to the solitude that pitch black nights brightened by the constellations.

It is in the play’s second half, when names of characters are more allegorical and less literal, that the show soars in uncomfortable and dour ways. The life choices each of these folks makes while on the gargantuan vessel are now amplified mightily in a more suffocating way on a miniscule dinghy, each life reaching a crisis of both conscience and physics. As the characters descend further and further into madness and delusion, self-centered piety now at the heart of survival, the piece moves away from texture and exposition and into a play that drives deeper into the devastating abyss. 

The second half is also where the Avett Brothers’ music, of which I will not pretend to have any pronounced expertise, is on par with the show’s aesthetic. There is a grizzled texture to the tunes, lyrics that are visceral and wistful, executed beautifully by the vocalists, namely from the melt-inducing voice of Enscoe (“No Hard Feelings” is a stunning highlight), tasked with handling the most hopeful of notes. 

The songs hit beautifully, a heavy emphasis on folk genre’s signature storytelling chops. While a song such as “Ain’t No Man” captures with a metaphoric emphasis on camaraderie and brotherhood, another tune like “Through My Prayers,” has a more delightful and solo framing. And another ditty, “Murder in the City,” commands wonderful vibes, with its gentle guitar at the onset paired with hints of pragmatism throughout. 

Much attention has been put on Hauck’s stellar set design, for good reason. Watching a show like “Hadestown,” you learn quickly that she can design anything on a very large scale. Her latest Berkeley Rep project is a massive haul of a hull with lots of functionality and rustic charm. The performers succinctly capture the ship’s constant and choppy movement with their own attention to detail, and to the delight of the audience, lots of mystery exists within the set’s functionality, always reminding those present of the sea’s potential peril. 

Ultimately, this is a story of horrific and devastating choices in the face of love and family, which is where the narrative firmly lives. Whatever the play doesn’t do in the first half, the urgency and necessities open up exponentially in the second. While the brothers and their love is tested mightily, the material is presented without judgment, forcing the audience to ask tough moral questions while exploring these lives which face the bitter, ultimate end. 

Despite whatever answers one may come up with for themselves after such a harrowing and uncomfortable adventure, the Avett Brothers are a nice vehicle to travel with while these explorations are made. 

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents “Swept Away”
Book by John Logan
Music and Lyrics by the Avett Brothers
Choreographed by David Neumann
Directed by Michael Mayer
The Word: The show does not compel 100 percent of the time, but the urgency and devastation of such perilous choices drives the story towards a devastating end.
Through March 6
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Peet’s Theatre at Berkeley Rep
2025 Addison St., Berkeley, CA
Tickets range from $42 – $268
For tickets, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org

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