The Catastrophist, written by Lauren M. Gunderson, is a filmed one-man play about the playwright’s husband Nathan (William DeMeritt). Gunderson’s non-fiction drama introduces us to this epidemiologist who has devoted his entire life to the study of pandemics, also known as the massive cultural event we’re all currently stuck inside. One might then expect The Catastrophist to be a play about science — but it ends up being a play about death, and grief, and how to live with the inherent unpredictability of the world even as you strive to predict it.
William DeMeritt gives a convincing and grounded performance as Nathan, toeing the line between knowledgeable and charismatic in such a way that his scientific info-dumps and emotionally charged anecdotes have equal gravitas. Carrying an entire 80-minute show by yourself is no easy task, let alone in an empty theatre with no audience to play off of, and DeMeritt accomplishes it with grace and confidence. Director Jasson Minadakis is very careful to give his actor room to breathe while accentuating the filmed nature of the performance at key moments. Cinematography and editing are used sparingly but noticeably. The effect is that The Catastrophist feels like a perfect blend between stage and film, even as the setting makes it clear that this is supposed to be a play, not a movie.
The script from Lauren Gunderson is endlessly fun, taking full advantage of the meta-ness of the situation — this as, after all, a playwright writing a true story about her real husband, who we are seeing played by an actor, who is then additionally filtered through both her words and our computer screens. This is joked about, but the limitations of the situation are acknowledged in the text as well, as a source of both frustration and catharsis. Who’s really telling the story here? Can authenticity survive being filtered that many times?
Ultimately, The Catastrophist is about one man’s struggle to accept two contradictory truths:
1. It is impossible to predict the future.
2. You must spend your entire life trying.
Nathan spends the first half of the show explaining the science of pandemics and how he and his team try to prevent them — and in the second half, we are drawn more and more into the drama of his personal life as he is dealt curveball after curveball. The delightful trick that the script pulls is that each curveball was set up in the first half, through subtle clues in the dialogue. Everything is predictable if you have enough information, but we simply never will. The Catastrophist is about the frustration of this tension between the known and the unknown, and about the hard work of realizing that you have to go on living anyway.
The Catastrophist is a particularly fascinating piece of quarantine-era theatre because it’s about Covid without mentioning Covid once. It thus forces the audience to connect its themes to the outside world on their own, turning us into scientists and observers. But the most admirable thing about it is its straightforward simplicity; it is nothing more than a man, on a stage, talking about grief. It neither overstays its welcome nor pulls its punches, and as a result it’s one of the most cathartic digital theatre offerings I have seen.
Nathan: William DeMeritt
Playwright: Lauren M. Gunderson
Director: Jasson Minadakis
Director of Photography/Editor: Peter Ruocco
Dramaturg: Martine Kei Green-Rogers
Lighting Designer: Wen-Ling Liao
Composer/Sound Designer: Chris Houston/Implied Music
Costume Designer: Sarah Smith
Assistant Director: Christina Hogan
Producer: Nakissa Etemad