This story is brought to you by the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
In the opening moments of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s world premiere of “Swept Away,” an 1888 whaling ship splinters in a violent storm, stranding its only survivors on a lifeboat, unprovisioned: its aged captain, a young adventurer and his protective older brother, and a reprobate mate. And so begins the play’s harrowing inquiry into who should live and who should die: the one nearest death, a brother for a brother, or the ignoble man.
“For me, ‘Swept Away’ is about the deeply human questions of what are you willing to sacrifice to protect those you love, what lengths will you go to in order to survive, and whether there is the possibility of redemption in our lives,” said Artistic Director Johanna Pfaelzer. “In this moment, deep into the pandemic, when we all wrestle with how we can best live safely and responsibly within a community, these questions feel quite present.”
The Avett Brothers’ music seeded the story
The action is set to the music of Grammy-nominated North Carolina indie-roots band, the Avett Brothers. “Swept Away” is the opening track of the band’s 2004 album “Mignonette,” which was named for an 1880s yacht whose destruction and aftermath inform the premise of the play. Fourteen Avett Brothers songs chart the emotional trajectory of the play.
“The songs are pulled from a range of albums and have been used to either illustrate the narrative or reveal and develop the characters,” said Michael Mayer, who came from New York City to direct the play. “They are all based on the scene structure — none of them is a ‘performance’ in the story.
“Fans can expect to hear beloved songs contextualized in a new narrative and with as many as eight singers on new arrangements by Brian Usifer and Chris Miller,” Mayer continued. “I think the folks who really know the songs will get a huge kick out of the new versions here and find themselves moved by others.” One of the songs, “Lord Lay Your Hand on My Shoulder,” was written specifically for the musical.
Award-winning writer and director shaped the tale
Mayer is likely to be a familiar name to longtime patrons of Berkeley Rep — and Broadway. The director has an award-laden track record for shaping plays around rock and pop music. In 2009, Mayer staged and directed the Green Day rock opera “American Idiot” at Berkeley Rep. He later directed the Broadway run of “Head Over Heels,” which featured hits by the Go-Go’s, and the 2014 Tony Award-winning revival of John Cameron Mitchell’s glam rock musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”
“Swept Away” is the result of Mayer’s collaboration with another award-laden powerhouse: writer John Logan. The Oscar-nominated and Tony Award-winning playwright and screenwriter’s credits include “Any Given Sunday,” “Aviator” and “Penny Dreadful.”
Mayer also brought in “Hadestown” choreographer David Neumann to give the characters a more visceral, embodied way to bare their states of mind. “To the extent that there is ‘dance’ in the show, it is all character based,” Mayer said. “The choreography is more abstract and based on the physical circumstances and emotional arcs of the characters.”
The production itself has had its own struggle-for-survival backstory. Originally the world premiere was slated for June 2020, timing that coincided with a resurgence of COVID in California. That the play was able to come together after two years on the shelf — with the same director, cast and commitment — is remarkable in and of itself. Staff jokingly call it “the not-little play that could.”
Actor John Gallagher Jr., who starred in “American Idiot” and plays Mate, went through all the ups and downs and never once thought about giving up on the project. “So many reasons gathered for me to tough it out and wait,” he said. “The chance to work with Michael Mayer again. My love of the Avett Brothers. The opportunity to take part in Johanna Pfaelzer’s first season as artistic director here.”
And there was the role itself: the multilayered, compromised character Logan describes as a “charismatic devil, slick con man and sexy predator.” “The great John Logan has gifted me one of the most complex and dynamic roles I have ever been entrusted with,” Gallagher continued. “It’s lean and harrowing and daring and it demands your all as a viewer as well as a performer. Berkeley audiences are so adventurous and game, and those are exactly the qualities ‘Swept Away’ needs.”
Also, this being Berkeley, the community rallied around the production. Rare Barrel sour beer company, for one, introduced Fire in the Spout, a special edition barrel-aged flavored with raspberry, blood orange and pink sea salt. And the new downtown Residence Inn by Marriott became base camp for the cast.
Despite the roller-coaster trajectory of the pandemic, ticket sales for “Swept Away” have been brisk — so much so that the play is now in its third extension. So far, people from 45 states have bought tickets, many of them longtime fans of the Avett Brothers.
Mayer has his sights set on a Broadway production of “Swept Away.” But why buy a plane ticket to New York City when first views of the show are here, now.
“Swept Away” runs through Mar. 13 at the Berkeley Rep Peet’s Theater, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Run time is 90 minutes, with no intermission. Patrons must wear masks and show proof of vaccination. For ticket information contact the Box Office at 510-647-2949, Tues.-Sun. from noon to 7 p.m.
This story was written and paid for by the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, whose mission is to create ambitious theatre that entertains and challenges its audiences, provokes civic engagement, and inspires people to experience the world in new and surprising ways.