PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Theaters, like just about everything else, have been struggling through this pandemic. Shutdowns, social distancing and reduced capacities mean gathering in groups to watch actors perform is off-limits.
Theater folks have been inventive with videos, livestreamed events and on-demand viewing, but nothing has been as engaging as actually going to the theater.
Until now. “The Catastrophist,” the digital theater production made available by Trinity Repertory Company, comes pretty darn close.
It’s a one-man storytelling tour de force about an unlikely, albeit timely, topic: virology. Told by a character based on real-life researcher Nathan Wolfe, the production not only makes science exciting but also tells a relatable tale about Wolfe’s personal life.
The production runs 80 minutes, and you won’t want to press pause at any time.
First, some background: In April 2020, the Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley, Calif., commissioned its playwright-in-residence Lauren M. Gunderson to create a theatrical piece that would work as a virtual production. First thoughts were for an adaptation of her book “The Viral Storm,” according to information from Trinity Rep. However, Gunderson proposed writing a new piece based on the life and work of her husband — Wolfe.
Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Md., signed on as a co-producer, and the play premiered, virtually, with William DeMeritt as Wolfe. After success at both producing theaters, the digital production now will be available at 10 theaters across the country, including currently at Trinity Rep.
The production opens as Wolfe, played by DeMeritt, realizes he is a character in a play written by his wife. He talks a bit about what makes “good science,” but points out, “Theater is not science. She (the playwright) makes the ending what she wants it to be.”
The science becomes fascinating when explained by an enthusiastic DeMeritt, as Wolfe. He talks about research in Cameroon, looking for the next virus “before it gets out of the forest.” He also explains the difference between bacteria and viruses and notes that “viruses are the most abundant life form on the planet,” making viruses sound as threatening as a zombie attack.
From that comes the play’s title. As Wolfe explains, “Give me a catastrophe, I will give you a plan. I’m a catastrophist.”
However, because this is a play, not science, Gunderson can delve into Wolfe’s personal life, from his days as a youthful cut-up to his “a-ha!” moment discovering his interest in virology. She also explores Wolfe’s relationship with his father and his sons. There is humor, highs and lows, and heartfelt emotion.
Immense credit goes to the actor, DeMeritt, who makes both Wolfe’s scientific and personal life compelling. This being a digital production, audiences get long views of the actor — alone, on an unadorned stage — and close-ups of irrepressible smiles and real tears. His tone is so unerring, it’s easy to forget this is performance and not reality.
Director Jasson Minadakis shares credit for the flow of what comes across like a conversation, and for the actor’s natural movement across the stage, once or twice sitting at the edge. At that point, the camera work underlines the feeling of being in the theater seats, watching the actor.
The playwright, of course, is the skilled storyteller, a talent which earned her notice from American Theatre Magazine as the most produced living playwright in 2017 and 2019. Wolfe did the groundbreaking research on how viruses are transmitted from animals to humans, and how once in the human host may develop into new strains. For this, and for being a founder and director of the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative, which monitors such transmissions, he was named one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2011.
The combination of talented playwright and scientist has led to this acclaimed production, a superbly acted and well-told story. Gather family and vaccinated friends to watch, and it might feel like being in the theater.
Access to “The Catastrophist” is available through Trinity Rep now through May 31. Tickets are $30 per household with discounts for Trinity Rep subscribers. Tickets and information are available at www.trinityrep.com/