‘The Catastrophist’ is self-aware storytelling of a virus hunter’s life

Marin Theatre Company/Courtesy

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Due to COVID-19, every facet of our lives seems to revolve around the term “pandemic.” And yet, there is still widespread confusion about the nature of viruses, especially their transmission and their prevalence. “The Catastrophist” is a must-see, eye-opening production of the “virus hunter” Dr. Nathan Wolfe and his work as a pandemic specialist. 

Produced by Marin Theatre Company and Round House Theatre, “The Catastrophist” is written by Lauren Gunderson, Wolfe’s wife. Gunderson’s intimate connection to Wolfe allows for a dynamic plot, ranging from Wolfe’s childhood to his time spent in Cameroon to the death of his father. Brought to life by William DeMeritt in the role of Wolfe, “The Catastrophist” is mind-expanding theatrical perfection. 

“The Catastrophist” is a one-man show with simple aesthetic visuals but powerful dialogue. Set on an empty stage with a black backdrop and bright lighting, Wolfe paces back and forth, telling his life story based upon prompts from the scene names, which appear on screen, and hints from his wife — who seems to be speaking to him from offstage. 

This self-awareness makes the show both uniquely entertaining and compelling. The performance begins with Wolfe onstage, unsure why he is there. He explains that his wife is a playwright and that she was planning to write a play about him. The off-script nature of the play, which seems to follow the tangents of Wolfe’s mind, is a personification of the twists and turns of his own life — both professional and personal. 

Wolfe’s journey to becoming the well known “virus hunter” is a story that everyone needs to hear. With a Ph.D in Virology, Wolfe spent a decade in Cameroon, studying the blood of the locals and the animals they hunted for viruses. He was looking for the next HIV before it got out of hand. In his studies, he observed that viral strains were jumping from animals to humans, and actually surviving. He explains how groundbreaking this discovery was — as it was happening with a 1% infection rate — and how it started his career as a “catastrophist.” He boldly states, “Give me a catastrophe and I will give you a plan. I’m a catastrophist.” 

Wolfe explains in detail how vast the variety of viruses are and how self-involved humans must be to believe we are the most important creatures on the planet. He talks about his work containing Ebola, as well the harmfully slow response of countries. And while he never talks about the COVID-19 pandemic, his story shows that pandemics aren’t new; rather, people’s lack of knowledge and unwillingness to prepare for catastrophe is what turns a virus into a pandemic. Impactfully, he explains “the death toll is an incomplete measurement of the pandemic impact. Because loss of livelihood is how you cut off an entire planet’s worth of people from their own future.”

The audience is given an intimate look at Wolfe’s life — both the celebrations and the hardships. His connection to Judaism is discussed at length, with an emphasis on the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, meaning “to heal the world.” The joys of family and fatherhood are tenderly addressed, while the pain of death and loss is conveyed with a heartbreaking depth of emotion. 

DeMeritt gives an outstanding performance, moving effortlessly across stories and emotions. His demeanor perfectly conveys an analytical, passionate personality, aligning with Wolfe’s life and decisions. His outbursts of anger and smiles of joy truly are a privilege to watch; his acting takes up the entire stage with its intensity.

“The Catastrophist” is a poignant marriage of human experience and scientific reality that has significant social relevance. The plot brings to life Wolfe, an impassioned, compelling personality, while also including important information about viruses and pandemics that everyone should know. Overall, Gunderson has created a masterpiece of storytelling that takes the restrictions of COVID-19 and turns them into a unique viewing experience.

Contact Nathalie Grogan at [email protected].