To choose just the right play for the ubiquitous streaming format, and just the right subject matter for these tenuous times — surely this is the most difficult decision that theaters must make these days.
Marin Theatre Company’s latest play, Lauren Gunderson’s “The Catastrophist,” a coproduction with Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Md., meets all necessary requirements. It’s a solo show, it’s filmed on the theater’s stage without a set, and it couldn’t be more relevant.
The source material is more personal than Gunderson’s other plays. (Currently the country’s most produced living playwright, she often explores historical figures.) It’s about her husband, Nathan Wolfe, an esteemed epidemiologist.
And it works beautifully on Vimeo due to inventive staging (by Marin Theatre artistic director Jasson Minadakis) that makes excellent use of the space and the videography, and a deeply affecting performance by William DeMeritt as Dr. Wolfe.
Composed of short, titled scenes (“Miami,” “Shiva,” and so on), beginning with a bemused Wolfe in close-up wondering, “What is this? What’s going on?” accompanied by the pervasive thrum of a heartbeat (an intermittent motif within Chris Houston’s evocative sound design), the play traces key elements of Wolfe’s life.
There’s the death of his beloved father, which is the emotional heart of the play; his research among animals in places like Cameroon (who knew that we humans, through our “tree of life,” are linked to bacteria but not to viruses, and that bacteria can actually get viruses, just like us?); professional up and downs; the birth of his two sons and more. “I think of myself as a bit of a futurist,” he remarks, “with a minor as a catastrophist.”
This is a metatheatrical, at times warmly comical play; Gunderson herself is present through Wolfe’s words. “My wife would like you to know…” he notes slyly now and then. And, “‘Keep going,’” she says, “Where?”
It’s also sensorial. Wolfe is occasionally transported into other worlds, into the past, into his own rich imagination.
And, in its direct address to us, it’s a challenge. Wolfe, who’s Jewish, explains the concept of tikkun olam, healing the world. “What will you do?” he asks pointedly. His job, on a macro level, is to predict pandemics.
As is common in so many of Gunderson’s plays, “The Catastrophist” examines an aspect of science through a complex and wonderfully human character, with plenty of humor along the way. Still, at times, in presenting a figure so close to her heart, she becomes sentimental, loses the thread of her inquiry; at other times, the play feels like a TED Talk.
And the relationship, as described by Wolfe, between himself and Gunderson, the unseen wife, sometimes feels a bit coy.
On the other hand, the playwright does a canny job of weaving together various themes and motifs, finding, for example, the connections between Wolfe’s father and Wolfe’s own sons, or the death of friend and Wolfe’s own study of viruses.
Still, as a piece so readymade for this historical moment, and for the technology available to us, it’s a good addition to Gunderson’s impressive canon.
“The Catastrophist” continues through Feb. 28 at marintheatre.org; tickets are $30.
Similarly, in some ways, playwright Donnetta Lavinia Grays’ drama “The Review, or How to Eat Your Opposition” would seem a fine choice for a Zoom production.
Set in New York City in the few years after 9/11, it explores how people — in this case, women — interact emotionally, creatively, sexually and intellectually, and it’s full of elegantly articulated thoughts about, in particular, art. The dialogue is at times quite dense, and, at two hours and 15 minutes, there’s plenty of time for viewers, at their computer screens, to absorb the many ideas that Grays examines.
The most layered and challenging character is Naomi (Leticia Duarte), a longtime installation artist who describes herself as a “fading icon” but who is experiencing a new burst of acclaim as she is reconfiguring her own earlier works to correspond to the changing world. She’s caustic, independent minded, nostalgic for dangerous, pre-Giuliani New York.
Her relationship with her agent, Gretchen (Marcie Rich), is complicated and co-dependent. Gretchen’s controlling, Naomi’s rebellious.
When a young art-critic blogger, Dana (April Deutschle), shows up at Naomi’s exhibit, the two initially spar but go on to connect in unexpected ways.
Meanwhile, Dana’s domestic partner, Kerri (Ci’era London), a sports enthusiast, is silently watching as Dana becomes more and more involved with the charismatic Naomi.
There’s lots going on here, but in this technologically rocky production from Theatre Rhinoceros, engineered by Spark Arts, it can be difficult to stay truly involved with the women.
That’s partly because, as directed by Tanika Baptiste, the dialogue moves along not at a natural rhythm but instead slowly and bumpily, lacking urgency at key moments.
Still, the actors’ carefully crafted characters are intriguing, and the play deserves to be seen again, under better physical conditions and performed with a brisker sense of forward momentum.
“The Review, or How to Eat Your Opposition” continues through Jan. 31 at therhino.org. Tickets are $25.
Jean Schiffman is a freelance arts journalist specializing in theater.