Lauren Gunderson decided to write about her husband. Nothing strange there; lots of playwrights use their loved ones as muses, and it’s a natural task for one of America’s most-produced dramatists. But Gunderson had some striking material: Dr. Nathan Wolfe is an acclaimed virologist, and he has publicly predicted a global pandemic for many years.
The result is The Catastrophist, a multimedia event being presented by several theater companies across the country, including our own Trinity Repertory Company. Co-produced with the California-based Marin Theatre Company and Round House Theatre in Washington, DC, The Catastrophist is a one-man show starring William DeMeritt, a dynamic actor for stage, screen, and audiobook narration. But instead of acting in front of a live audience in a single location, DeMeritt’s performance has been filmed, mastered, and streamed anywhere with wifi.
Trinity Rep made its first foray into virtual theater with A Christmas Carol late last year. Instead of a live presentation, the Dickens classic was recorded and edited, so that audiences saw the same product every time. A Christmas Carol was also free to view, so audiences could adjust to the new format and see its potential. Trinity followed it up with Your Half Hour Call with Curt, a call-in show with artistic director Curt Columbus, which boasted 18 episodes.
The Catastrophist ups the ante considerably. First, Gunderson’s script is basically biographical, chronicling the life and career of her husband. Second, Dr. Wolfe becomes a character, speaking directly to the camera on a blank stage, much like an in-person monologue show. The script has a playful postmodern quality, where “Nathan” has to figure out that he is a fictionalized version of himself and that this is a play.
“My wife is a writer,” Nathan declares in the first few minutes. “She’s writing, I think, this. Am I right? Is that what we’re doing? Seems like that’s what we’re doing. My wife drags me to enough plays that I recognize the tricks now.”
Streaming theater has its pros and cons, of course. A live monologue has a certain magic – as artists like Eve Ensler and Spalding Grey long demonstrated – that can’t be fully captured on video. But The Catastrophist incorporates music and close-ups that are impossible during a live show. There is no “bad seat,” and you can openly discuss the show as much as you want as it’s playing.
Most importantly, The Catastrophist narrates the life and struggles of a man at the forefront of viral pandemics, translated to the stage by one of America’s premiere playwrights. News reports tend to gloss over such profound personalities, and there’s no better time to understand where these scientists are coming from.
“Theater is not science,” says the dramatized Dr. Wolfe. “That I know. It’s the opposite. [My wife] makes the ending whatever she wants it to be. I can’t do that. That would be scientific fraud. Is there theatrical fraud? Is that what theater is, very nice, well-lit fraud? She says it’s not. Agree to disagree.” The Catastrophist continues through May 31. For tickets and streaming options, visit TrinityRep.com