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Swept Away at Arena Stage Features Music by Grammy Winners The Avett Brothers in a Dark Tale on the High Seas

Swept Away at Arena Stage Features Music by Grammy Winners The Avett Brothers in a Dark Tale on the High Seas

Swept Away
Arena Stage
December 11, 2023
Jordan Wright
Special to The Zebra

Stark Sands (Big Brother), John Gallagher, Jr. (Mate), Wayne Duvall (Captain), and Adrian Blake Enscoe (Little Brother) in Arena Stage’s East Coast premiere of Swept Away. (Photo/Julieta Cervantes)

Swept Away opens with a slow burn culminating into an edge-of-your-seat drama. Scored by The Avett Brothers, an American Roots band who have earned three Grammy Awards, it focusses on the waning days of the whaling trade when whale products were the primary commerce out of the New Bedford, Massachusetts port. Two brothers, named in the program as Little Brother (Adrian Blake Enscoe) and Big Brother (Stark Sands) are on the final voyage of one of the last whaling ships to ply the Atlantic Ocean. They have come from a New England farm where Little Brother ran off to seek adventure and Big Brother followed him onto the ship with the intention of convincing him to come back home. “It’s seed-planting season,” he pleads. But the ship raises anchor before Big Brother can disembark, and now the two boys must begin their adventure together.

The music, taken from the Avett’s Mignonette album, is the glue that holds the plot together with only one song written exclusively for the show. Avett Brothers’ fans, and there seemed to be many in the audience, will recognize their Roots music. Though the combination of soulful and up-tempo songs are a part of the composers’ canon, they had not been written with the show in mind but seem to dovetail seamlessly into the plot.

Stark Sands (Big Brother), Wayne Duvall (Captain), Adrian Blake Enscoe (Little Brother), John Gallagher Jr, (Mate). Taurean Everett (Ensemble), Orville Mendoza (Ensemble), Michael J. Mainwaring (Ensemble), Tyrone L. Robinson (Ensemble), John Sygar (Ensemble), and Cameron Johnson (Ensemble) (Photo/Julieta Cervantes)

It opens with three men imploring a recuperating crewmember to tell the truth, to, “Tell the whole story.” He begins with, “Twenty-one days lost at sea,” which is a familiar tale to anyone who knows the perils sailors faced in those times. Cue Moby Dick.

The story then flashes back to 1888 when the men set sail for the deepest waters of the Atlantic Ocean on their quest to harpoon the massive mammal for a king’s ransom. We meet the rowdy crew of hardened sailors, the Mate (John Gallagher, Jr.) and the Captain (Wayne Duvall). In a show of camaraderie, the sailors bond with each other and the Mate refers to the ragtag crew, “We are pagans and idolators here!” A rowdy group of hardened men unknown to these two hayseeds raised within the Church. “What are we but useless men plying a dying trade,” the Captain asks. Throughout the script and within the lyrics are multiple references to God and salvation.

Stark Sands (Big Brother) and Adrian Blake Enscoe (Little Brother) (Photo/Julieta Cervantes)

Soon the men encounter a terrible storm. The ship goes down and the Captain, the Mate and the two boys are set adrift in a lifeboat. This is where the story goes very dark and becomes well-reflected musically by the striking change in mood.

Directed by Michael Mayer and choreographed by David Neumann, it is bolstered by the talents of Set Designer Rachel Hauck who has created a ghostly ship with old fashioned rigging to fill the stage and backdrop the sailors’ merriment. Yes! There is hornpipe dancing when the men bond as they set to sea. Later Lighting Designer Kevin Adams along with Sound Designer John Shivers and Stage Command Systems’ sophisticated technology seal the dizzying drama which ensues.

Ensemble members: Hunter BrownMatt DeAngelisTaurean Everett (and Dance Captain), Cameron JohnsonBrandon KalmMichael J. MainwaringOrville MendozaTyrone RobinsonJohn Sygar and Jamari Johnson Williams.

Book by John Logan; Music Arrangements and Orchestrations by Brian Usifer and Chris Miller; Music Director Will Van Dyke; Costume Designer Susan Hilferty.

Orville Mendoza (Ensemble), Taurean Everett (Ensemble), Stark Sands (Big Brother), Adrian Blake Enscoe (Little Brother), Jamari Johnson Williams (Ensemble), John Gallagher, Jr. (Mate), Michael J. Mainwaring (Ensemble), John Sygar (Ensemble), and Matt DeAngelis (Ensemble) (Photo/Julieta Cervantes)

In the Kreeger Theater through January 14, 2024 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street, Washington, DC 20024. Visit for tickets and information.

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