Review: Austin Playhouse’s The Catastrophist
Aptly timed return to the stage for a meditation on science and risk
Reviewed by Ellen Daly, Fri., April 1, 2022
"Death, birth, right on top of each other" – that's the overarching theme of Lauren Gunderson's The Catastrophist. The play profiles her virologist husband, Nathan Wolfe, portrayed by the Austin Playhouse's Ben Wolfe (surprisingly, no relation). Audiences follow Nathan through an extended compulsory monologue, in which he is forced by his wife's playwriting to tell the tale of his own grappling with mortality.
Nathan Wolfe is no amateur catastrophist, having been named one of Time's 100 Most Influential People for his work in viral forecasting, and Austin Playhouse co-Associate Artistic Director Ben Wolfe is no amateur actor. Ben's embodiment of Nathan is serendipitous if not uncanny. For 80 uninterrupted minutes he is not Wolfe the Actor but Wolfe the Virologist, on a mission seemingly motivated by survival to tell his tale of, well, survival. Though he's alone onstage, he relishes in the fact that he isn't alone in the room, assuming the nonexistence of a fourth wall by opening with the line: "What is this, an intervention?" His performance is enthused, anxious and bodily, physically exudes every emotion Gunderson observed in her husband.
What's actually worth being afraid of? That question is posed by virologist Wolfe as he, in isolation, runs through a series of perspective-altering statistics about risk. His calculated paranoia combined with his inability to escape the narrative realm his wife placed him in emotionally resonate in a way that would perhaps have been less palpable pre-pandemic. The protagonist clearly relies upon his work – his ability to literally predict and prevent catastrophe – for his sanity. Periodic chest pains, enhanced by immersive sound (Robert S. Fisher) and lighting design (Mark Novick), hint that the root of his fixation with disaster prevention is the inevitability of his own demise.
It's also serendipitous that this play marks Austin Playhouse's return to live, in-person performances after a three-year COVID hiatus – a return to art made possible by science. The play grapples with the perceived mutual exclusivity of science and art, portrayed through the protagonist's relationship with his wife who takes him to plays when he's not busy hunting viruses. Wolfe is a fervent advocate for truth, which he believes is found in science and not theatre, until he must ultimately reconcile that some truths, like our innermost struggles, cannot be predicted by calculation.
Commissioned in 2020 as a virtual production by the Marin Theatre Company, The Catastrophist is an opening act to Austin Playhouse's live return but an encore to director and Austin Playhouse founder Don Toner's six decades of producing theatre. The company announced his retirement in a blog post last week, stating that The Catastrophist will be his final production. "It's such a joy to return to the theatre and to be directing Ben Wolfe in a tour-de-force performance as well as working with Stage Manager Barry Miller," Toner stated in a press release. "The play moves beyond the worldwide catastrophes Nathan seeks to predict, to the personal ones that we often catch too late. It's this personal part of the story that I really connected with and I think our audiences will as well."
After three years away from audiences, Austin Playhouse is nothing if not aware of the privilege of participation in live theatre, one held by performers and patrons alike. The Catastrophist is undoubtedly worthwhile for anyone grateful for the science of viral forecasting, the art of playwriting, or a particularly fortuitous marriage of the two.
Austin Playhouse's The CatastrophistTrinity Street Playhouse, 901 Trinity, 512/476-0084, austinplayhouse.com
Through April 9
Running time: 80 min.