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Review: THE CATASTROPHIST at Round House Theatre and Marin Theatre Company

A Play for Our Time

Review: THE CATASTROPHIST at Round House Theatre and Marin Theatre Company
William DeMeritt (Nathan) in The Catastrophist produced by Round House Theatre and Marin Theatre Company. Photo courtesy of Marin Theatre Company.

It might seem too much to watch a play about viruses at the moment as COVID-19 is our current reality. However, The Catastrophist, by Lauren M. Gunderson, isn't just about viruses - it's about Dr. Nathan Wolfe (William DeMeritt), an award-winning virologist known for tracking Ebola and swine flu, who is dealing with his career, family, religion, and just life in general. The Catastrophist, co-produced by Round House Theatre and Marin Theatre Company, and directed by Jasson Minadakis, is a surreal and emotional glimpse into Dr. Wolfe's passion of preventing catastrophe before it happens.

The play's narrative is shaped mainly by Nathan's interactions with his wife, Lauren, who also happens to be the playwright. While Lauren isn't present physically onstage, her presence is felt as DeMeritt often interacts with her by addressing her in quippy asides. The play itself isn't linear, but is a series of short scenes depicting different points in Wolfe's life. It takes a bit of time to get used to this format, but this feeling later recedes as the play goes on.

DeMeritt fully embodies Dr. Wolfe's mannerisms and quirks to the point where one starts to wonder if he is Nathan. He naturally brings out Wolfe's curiosity and passion for viruses (we'll call this his science side). For the science lovers, there are plenty of stories to hold onto ranging from his time in Cameroon to working in the basement of the CDC. Yes, there is mention of pandemic insurance. DeMeritt passionately channels Wolfe's insights about how to prevent the next pandemic, which takes on a surreal and haunting tone due to present circumstances. While scientific tangents are expected in a play about a scientist, it's the unexpected ones centering around Wolfe's relationship with his father and struggle with grief that stand out. DeMeritt takes on the heartache of Nathan's father's health as if it were his own to bear. The audience becomes witnesses to this complex father-son dynamic, despite Wolfe's father never being present as a character onstage. Where there is grief in this story, there is also healing with the birth of his and Lauren's sons, Charles and Asa. DeMeritt's depiction of Wolfe recounting how he felt when he first met his newborn sons is a mix of pure joy, anxiety, and hope in its sincerest form.

The set doesn't distract from the storytelling. It provides an almost meditative backdrop of soft blue and white lighting, designed by Wen-Ling Liao. It could possibly be seen as Dr. Wolfe's happy place as it reflects the tranquility of how he feels while scuba diving. A welcome contrast to the wealth of emotions and stories portrayed by DeMeritt onstage.

Even though The Catastrophist takes place years before the coronavirus pandemic, it is a play that is fitting for this unprecedented time.

Running Time: 1 hour and 20 minutes without an intermission

The Catastrophist, co-produced by Round House Theatre and Marin Theatre Company, streams online until February 28, 2021. Tickets can be purchased here.

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