3/7/2021 THE CATASTROPHIST Theatrical Outfit / Marin Theatre Company
In (or around) 375 BC, the Greek Philosopher Plato wrote in The Republic about Socrates’ Allegory of the Cave. In its simplest form, the allegory posits that what we see of reality is as ephemeral as shadows projected on a cave’s wall, the wall being all we are permitted to see. The “true” reality is the basic “form” that creates the shadow. This is why we recognize every chair as a chair, even if we have never seen that specific chair, why we recognize a threat in every mysterious night-time sound, why we ascribe to lunatic conspiracy theories despite reason and evidence, why we ascribe the allegory (and The Republic) to Plato despite the entire book being the teachings of Socrates.
In essence, we live in a shadow world and can only make sense of it because of patterns (forms) our brain (eventually) grows to recognize.
In 2013, the Weird Sisters Project performed Lauren Gunderson’s play, Emilie: La Marquise du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight, in which we see a woman on a mostly bare stage, in theatrical limbo, as she tells us of her life and works. It is a shadow of the real woman, a shadow life created in the writer’s creative cauldron, giving us an image of a woman of science, (semi) forgotten by history, worthy of respect and study and (especially) remembrance.
And now, our digital “cave wall” brings us the shadow of another scientist in another play by Ms. Gunderson, another series of images and words dancing in the light of her creative imagination, another “shadow life” that represents a real person. Person is Form is Shadow is (curiously) Substance! In this case, though, the scientist happens to be Ms. Gunderson’s husband, virologist (catastrophist) Dr. Nathan Wolfe. And what can be more invisible, more “shadow-like” than the multitudes of viruses that make up the lion’s share of life on earth? If viruses can even be said to be alive.
As in Emilie, we see Dr. Wolfe in limbo, isolated on a bare stage, surrounded by darkness, as if we’re in Socrates’ cave itself. The video editor occasionally shares glimpses of stage lights or (empty) auditorium seats but keeps the focus on the man. The man who recognizes he is a shadow, who knows he’s in a play (“It’s what happens when you marry a playwright”), who is granted the grace to actually rage at the playwright (“This is NOT your story to tell”), who recognizes the artificiality of his being here.
Dr. Wolfe tells us (is forced to tell us by his wife?) about his life and work. As said above, he is a virologist. He tells us what drew him to the field – the sheer magnitude of viruses that exist in and around us (“Are they alive? I don’t care!”) , their total count “outnumbering all the stars in the universe,” and the “minitude” of our knowledge about them. He worked on a team in Cameroon, tracking zoonotic viruses “jumping” to human hosts, and eventually leading the team that surveyed the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
And he proposed something called “pandemic insurance,” because loss of life is not the only cost of a viral pandemic, but loss of livelihood and loss of purpose, especially if your identity involves an art or trade totally cut off by a pandemic. This was more than ten years before COVID. But, unfortunately, the idea of “Pandemic Insurance” fails because of the abstract nature of “what might happen someday perhaps maybe.” It’s like people buying flood insurance only AFTER their first experience with a hurricane. (“I’ll be ready the next time.”)
Dr. Wolfe gives us the depressing news that, like with hurricanes, with pandemics, there will ALWAYS be a “next time.”
But The Catastrophist isn’t just a dry lecture by an expert in a field too much in the news these days. It is also a (shadow) portrait of the man, the son who (at ten years old) almost loses his father to heart disease, the husband who wryly passes on to us his wife’s “notes,” the ecstatic new Dad whose son is born soon after a devastating loss, the man who is concerned about a family gene that “causes all males to die of heart disease when they are in their forties (especially now that he is now in his forties), an Atheist of Jewish heritage, a husband, a father, a son. And it is these human aspects, this wry self-deprecation, this “battle of wills” with wife and playwright that make this such a compelling piece.
To be blunt, I was totally enraptured by Dr. Wolfe and his life for the (far too) short running time of this play, and, because of the theatrical “Cave Wall” so similar to that of “Emilie,” totally convinced I was witnessing a man after death defending his life. Will we witness that tragic moment when he “cashes in his genetic chips?” The Spoiler Police (rightly) forbid me from saying.
The play was directed by Jasson Minadakis, former Artistic Director of Actor’s Express and current AD of the Marin Theatre Company near San Francisco, where the production was taped under strict COVID protocols. It stars William DeMeritt who delivers a masterful performance, emotionally wide ranging, scientifically compelling, and brutally honest. He is not afraid to show pique, even anger and outrage at the nil-researched press blaming his team for “mis-handling the Ebola outbreak.” He is visibly uncomfortable at some of the things his wife is “forcing him to say,” and even refusing angrily to discuss his climactic health crisis.
Like many of Lauren Gunderson’s masterpieces, this concludes with an emotionally wrenching visual flourish – yes, she is in her own play with her children – that ties together many of the emotional and thematic threads she created. It especially evokes that old Platonic (Socratic?) analogy – is there anything more “allegory of the cave”-esque than home movies or filmed plays? Even staged plays often evoke the cave, putting us in the dark and focusing our attention on the shadows on stage.
The Catastrophist is a vivid and compelling monologue, a video that uses the camera well, featuring an actor who knows how to work a camera, an audience, a playwright. The play may be about Dr. Nathan Wolfe, but the real star is Lauren Gunderson, who here (as always) creates dialogue that remains lyrically memorable even as it reflects character and specific speech patterns. More to the point, she creates a loving portrait of her husband without idealizing him, without inflicting undue praise or uncritical white-washing.
It is quite simply one of the best shows you’re likely to see this year.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #toCATASTROPHIST #LaurenGunderson)