Theatrical Outfit presents a personal ‘Catastrophist’

William DeMeritt stars in Lauren Gunderson's one-man play "The Catastrophist," a Theatrical Outfit presentation streaming on-demand through March 21.
Courtesy of Marin Theatre Company and Round House Theatre
William DeMeritt stars in Lauren Gunderson's one-man play "The Catastrophist," a Theatrical Outfit presentation streaming on-demand through March 21. Courtesy of Marin Theatre Company and Round House Theatre

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Lauren Gunderson, the Decatur native (now based in San Francisco) who’s among the most produced playwrights in the country, is no stranger to blinding us with science — or scientific subject matter, at least.

In three of her finest works to be staged here over the last several years, she has shown an ingenious knack for introducing us to fascinating, if somewhat obscure, historical figures whose unsung true stories deserved to be discovered and appreciated. The central characters were women who lived well ahead of their times, and Gunderson revealed a remarkable facility for delving into their academic or clinical pursuits with a sophisticated style that still felt utterly engaging and relatable to those laypersons among us in the audience.

All of the plays were sharply observed, at once literate and lyrical. “Emilie” (a 2013 independent production by the Weird Sisters Theatre Project) involved 18th-century French mathematician and physicist Émilie du Châtelet. “Silent Sky” (2015 at Theatrical Outfit) detailed turn-of-the-20th-century American astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt. “Ada and the Memory Engine” (produced by Essential Theatre in 2017) was about Ada Byron Lovelace, a “poetical scientist” and “computer visionary” in Victorian-era England.

Gunderson’s latest scientific experiment, as it were, is “The Catastrophist,” commissioned by Marin Theatre Company (in San Francisco), and developed as a digital co-production with Round House Theatre (in Bethesda, Maryland). The slick 80-minute drama is now available for streaming on-demand through Theatrical Outfit, which has a proven track record with Gunderson: besides “Silent Sky,” also including 2018′s wonderful Shakespeare-inspired “The Book of Will,” and a couple of her Jane Austen-based “Pemberley” Christmas shows.

Theatrical Outfit's streaming presentation of "The Catastrophist" features William DeMeritt.
Courtesy of Marin Theatre Company and Round House Theatre
Theatrical Outfit's streaming presentation of "The Catastrophist" features William DeMeritt. Courtesy of Marin Theatre Company and Round House Theatre

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Helmed by Marin artistic director Jasson Minadakis — who served in that same capacity with Atlanta’s Actor’s Express back in the early-to-mid 2000s — and featuring photography and editing by Peter Ruocco, the one-man play stars an earnest William DeMeritt as Nathan Wolfe, a renowned virologist and epidemiologist who also happens to be Gunderson’s real-life husband.

Surprisingly (and disappointingly), although Gunderson wrote it during the early stages of last year’s shutdown, there’s nary a mention of COVID-19 in “The Catastrophist,” or Wolfe’s reaction to it. From a bare stage in front of an auditorium of empty seats, the character basically delivers a classroom lecture in two dozen or so short scenes, about infectious diseases and biological diversity in general, eukaryotes and prokaryotes, his work with the Ebola outbreak in Cameroon, and the concept of pandemic insurance.

His intimate asides to the camera are often forced and pretentious. Wolfe talks about his Jewish upbringing in the 1970s, about the early death rate among the men in his family, and mostly about his father, who taught him about social justice and “do-gooding.” An angry tirade about an unnamed reporter’s investigation into his Ebola efforts seems vaguely self-indulgent and extraneous. A random anecdote about a high-school friend who later died of AIDS comes out of (and goes) nowhere, consequently less moving than maudlin.

Throughout the play, Gunderson writes the character a lot of sweet and thoughtful things to say about their endearing relationship and enduring marriage, the birth of their children, and so forth. “She’s writing this because she knows that I can’t,” he confesses at one point. “The Catastrophist” is quite a love letter to him, really —probably much more meaningful to the two of them, on a personal level, than it is to the rest of us, in theatrical terms.

THEATER REVIEW

“The Catastrophist”

Streaming on-demand through March 21. Ticket links range from $23.20 (for individual access) to $34.80 (for group access), and $11.60 (for students). 678-528-1500. theatricaloutfit.org.

Bottom line: Not as topical or timely as you might expect.

In Other News