A scientist’s psyche

People’s Light presents Lauren Gunderson’s ‘The Catastrophist’

3 minute read
Bringing us into virologist Nathan Wolfe’s psyche: William DeMeritt in ‘The Catastrophist.’ (Image courtesy of People’s Light.)
Bringing us into virologist Nathan Wolfe’s psyche: William DeMeritt in ‘The Catastrophist.’ (Image courtesy of People’s Light.)

Two weeks into the Covid-19 pandemic, Jasson Minadakis, artistic director of California’s Marin Theatre Company, asked playwright Lauren Gunderson to write a play about her husband, Nathan Wolfe, a renowned virologist. The resulting piece, The Catastrophist, is an 80-minute one-person virtual monologue about pandemics…just not this one.

Coproduced by Marin Theatre Company and Round House Theatre, and now presented as part of People’s Light’s digital season, The Catastrophist is a beautifully filmed play, recorded on an empty stage in an empty auditorium. Well-executed cuts between cameras give the presentation a surprising dynamism. Throughout, William DeMeritt, the lone performer, engages skillfully with the camera, talking directly to the audience at times, bringing us into Wolfe’s psyche.

Memories and science

The play’s first minutes feel promising, as Nathan, masterfully inhabited by DeMeritt, opens the show in a state of confusion. He quickly realizes that he is, in fact, in a play. Following this epiphany, Wolfe takes the audience on a fragmented, time-hopping journey through his memories. He discusses his relationship with theater (he is a Sweeney Todd kind of guy) and contrasts his wife’s work as a playwright with his work as a scientist.

The Catastrophist has a habit of abandoning its most promising concepts before they have time to really sink in or develop. The interplay between science and art feels ripe for exploration, especially given the relationship of subject matter and author. However, this potentially fruitful dialectic gets abandoned before it goes beyond a surface-level division of science as truth and theater as fraud.

The play is most interesting when Gunderson’s Wolfe talks about the science of pandemics through the lens of his experiences studying viruses in Cameroon. He treats the audience to an artful, engaging, and deeply informative lecture about biodiversity and the genealogical history of viruses. While the current coronavirus is not mentioned by name, it surely casts a shadow. The decision to set the play in a pre-Covid moment is a smart one; the work feels topical without being too on the nose.

Fears and sorrows, large and small

DeMeritt makes the most of this material, imbuing Wolfe with a confidence that straddles the line between cockiness and sexiness. His passion for virology seems to electrify his movements when he is talking about the science of pandemics.

Unfortunately, as the play’s momentum begins to build, Gunderson digresses into different memories that veer into diatribes. As written here, Wolfe adopts a grating, know-it-all aura that gets preachy (when he admonishes his father for smoking) or smug (when he complains that no one seemed interested in his idea for pandemic insurance).

About halfway through, the play pivots from scientific lecture to Wolfe’s personal memories of loss, fear, and sacrifice. These confessions remind the audience that even those who study death and disaster are subject to the fears and sorrows of life. DeMeritt calibrates his performance during this transition with sensitivity and humor, giving individual losses, achievements, and anxieties their due, when they might seem banal amongst the catastrophic losses of a pandemic.

Image description: A scene from The Catastrophist shows actor William DeMeritt against a black backdrop, drawing circles of light in the air. The word “viruses” appears in a circle he drew.

What, When, Where

People’s Light presents the Marin Theatre Company and Round House Theatre coproduction of The Catastrophist. By Lauren M. Gunderson. Directed by Jasson Minadakis and edited by Peter Ruocco. Streaming ($25) through May 23, 2021.

Accessibility offerings for The Catastrophist include optional closed captioning, audio description, and ASL interpretation. These options appear automatically in viewers’ online accounts as they become available.

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