Keep Going, She Said: “The Catastrophist”

The Catastrophist TEASER from Marin Theatre Company on Vimeo.
Presented by Trinity Repertory Company
Coproduced by Marin Theatre Company and Round House Theatre
Written by Lauren M. Gunderson
Based on the life of virologist Nathan Wolfe
Directed by Jasson Mindakis
Performed by William DeMeritt

March 18 – May 31, 2021 
Trinity Rep and other theaters are streaming this production to their audiences in collaboration with the Marin Theatre Company and Round House Theatre.
Trinity Rep on social media: @trinityrepertorycompany

Critique by Kitty Drexel

STREAMING — Actor William DeMeritt is not virologist Nathan Wolfe. DeMeritt plays Wolfe with startling humanity, humor, and confidence. DeMeritt and Wolfe look similar in appearance: they both have medium complexions, curly kinks in their hair, and tall statures. Lest one falls into the trap of assuming that an actor is their character, we must establish that these two men are not the same person. DeMeritt only plays a virologist on screen. 

DeMeritt plays Wolfe with such raw honesty that I honestly forgot that DeMeritt was an actor. In his portrayal, DeMeritt balances the life of a scientist, the hardcore science of illness, and marriage to a renowned playwright exceedingly well. I stopped trying to keep the actor apart from the script in my analysis; his performance was so personalized that it became a herculean task to do so.  

Director Jasson Mindakis’s work with DeMeritt to create Wolfe-the-character for the stage is solid. Mindakis’s staging of this one-man play uses the entire space; at one point, DeMeritt is even in the rows of the black box theatre’s empty audience. A transparent screen is used to diagram the evolutionary tree of life. DeMeritt stares through it to make eye contact with the camera/us. 

Mindakis has DeMeritt moving constantly to show us that Wolfe’s brain is constantly thinking. When DeMeritt isn’t moving, the camera moves instead. The camera’s jumps from one angle to another are jarring. 

Mindakis made a stylistic choice by moving the camera so frequently. When DeMeritt moves, we get the scientist/brain metaphor. The camera’s focus represents us, the audience. When the camera moves, DeMeritt must pivot his body to meet the camera again. 

Camera angles and POVs don’t exist devoid of metaphor. Is Mindakis saying that Wolfe must pivot to meet us where we are? If so, I don’t think this tactic works. It’s too jarring on the eyes. It disconnects the viewer from the story.  

Most science is not sexy like DeMeritt/Wolfe/Gunderson make it sound. It’s boring. I am told by my brilliant wife, who is a lab technician at MIT, that it takes hours of pipetting to produce a successful experiment. Machines exist that can pipette for you but they “cost more than a human,” said my wife. It’s cheaper to have a human or grad student do it. 

After the monotonous pipetting comes analysis, loads of math while staring at screens, discussion in white lab coats, running to the lab at 10 PM on a Sunday because a sequencer wet itself, and then, from what I understand, pipetting until one’s wrist falls off. It’s pipetting all the way down. 

The DeMeritt/Mindakis/Gunderson trifecta of excitement is what makes the science in The Catastrophist interesting to us mere plebes. Textbook explanations don’t inspire the same rapt attention as DeMeritt’s performance. It’s the artists’ investment in and the simplification of the scientific narrative that keeps us interested in a journey started eons ago and ensures that it remains germane to the present.  

Summary from the Trinity Rep website: “Virologist Nathan Wolfe, named one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People in the World for his work tracking viral pandemics, has hunted viruses from the jungles of Cameroon to the basement of the CDC. Hear his story – presented as cinematic digital theatre – as he tracks the threats that come from without and within. A blazingly intelligent, wryly witty, and warm look at the thrill of discovery, whether it’s a new virus or the treasures of your own family.”

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