Atlanta-born, San Francisco-based playwright Lauren Gunderson’s two favorite topics are science and theater. At only thirty-nine, she is the most produced living American playwright. She’s written works about mathematician Ada Lovelace and polymath Charles Babbage (Ada and the Engine), scientist and intellectual Émilie du Châtelet (Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight), a young Isaac Newton (Leap), astronomer Henrietta Leavitt (Silent Sky), and physicist and chemist Marie Curie (The Half-Life of Marie Curie) in addition to several twists on Shakespeare (The Book of Will, The Heath, The Taming, and Toil & Trouble). She did not have to look very far for her latest play, which cleverly combines the two: The protagonist has been sleeping next to her for more than a decade, her husband, virologist Nathan Wolfe.
Written during the pandemic, The Catastrophist is a one-man show set in 2016 as Wolfe (portrayed by William DeMeritt), a self-described “virus hunter” and the author of The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age, the founder and former CEO of Metabiota, and the founder and former board chair of Global Viral, combats the Ebola outbreak with his team. “I try to predict pandemics, because, if you can predict pandemics, you just might be able to prevent them,” he explains. “How does the futurist not see his own future? How does the catastrophist not plan for his own catastrophe?” he asks.
This play may be specifically about Ebola, but it clearly relates to what we’re going through now with Covid-19, which has shuttered theaters around the world, impacting Gunderson’s livelihood. “Theater is not science,” Wolfe says. “That I know. It’s the opposite. [The playwright] makes the ending whatever she wants it to be. I can’t do that. In fact that would be scientific fraud. Is there theatrical fraud? Isn’t that what theater is? Very nice, well-lit fraud?”
The story is intensely personal as well, as Wolfe discusses how many of his close male relatives died in their forties; in 2016, he is forty-six and worried about his own health, especially now that he is married and starting a family. As he details his relationship with his father, he considers what kind of a dad he will be, in a world that can be so quickly devastated by an epidemic. “First we have to address our general scientific illiteracy as a species,” he points out. “Everyone has to read Shakespeare in order to be considered well educated, right? But we’re not required to fully understand our place in the tree of life? Shakespeare’s more important than that? Than all of life as we know it! I have a feeling my wife is going to object to this line of thinking. I like plays, but fuck plays! Why focus on fiction when we can’t seem to handle what’s real?”
The Catastrophist was filmed live onstage at the Marin Theatre in San Francisco (coproduced with Round House Theatre in DC), with no audience. When the play deals with Wolfe’s professional life, DeMeritt delivers his lines like he’s giving a TED Talk, determined but not very theatrical as he walks about the empty stage. In fact, Wolfe is a TED Talk veteran, with such scientific monologues as “Why We Have Virus Outbreaks & How We Can Prevent Them” and “What’s Left to Explore?” under his belt. The play is much more intimate and moving when Wolfe digs down deep into his private fears and desires; DeMeritt gets more emotional, displaying a heartfelt vulnerability as director Jasson Minadakis ( The Whipping Man, Equivocation) and cinematographer Peter Ruocco bring the camera closer to him, focusing on his eyes, his slumped body, so different from his straight, stalwart stance as the brilliant, successful scientist giving a lecture.
The Catastrophist is very much a work of its time, from subject matter to execution, currently available only over the internet. “Viruses depend on other life to survive. But don’t we all?” Wolfe asks. “All life depends on other life. No one exists in isolation.” Ultimately, though, Wolfe sums everything up when he admits, “It’s a risk being married to a playwright. They usually get the last word.” And The Catastrophist is no different.