Forget the Times—Stream This Feminist Playwright’s Newest Work Now

Gathering us together virtually through her play, The Catastrophist, Lauren Gunderson invites us to celebrate and mourn with her as we have not been allowed to do together for so long.

Lauren Gunderson's play, The Catastrophist
Virologist Nathan Wolfe has hunted viruses from the jungles of Cameroon to the basement of the CDC. Lauren Gunderson’s play, The Catastrophist, tells his story. (The Marin Theater)

Editor’s note: Lauren Gunderson’s new play The Catastrophist (now streaming) is a one-person show about her husband, a virologist. A major publication recently ran a scathing review of the play. The review was perceived to be sexist by many in the theater industry. While this piece intentionally does not link to the review in question, below, writer Holly Louise Derr provides a counterargument. 

Overwrought. Difficult. Coyly unstable. Unduly exotic. Cliched. Unseemly.

Where have I heard those words before? I mean, I know they’ve been said to every smart and talented woman who has made art ever, but recently and specifically … Hmm … You’d think I would have made a record of that newspaper. Alas, the Times being what they are, it has slipped my mind.

I keep reading that the pandemic is responsible for that: Quarantine is changing our brains so that we are finding it more difficult to convert short-term memories into long-term ones. It’s as if we live one day at a time, counting the days like theatre makers at rehearsal count the scenes of a play.

Speaking of plays, you should totally check out feminist Lauren Gunderson’s newest one, The Catastrophist, streaming through July 27 by the Marin Theatre Company in California and the Round House Theatre in Washington, D.C. In it, Gunderson expertly captures our new sense of how time passes and memories are made—or not made—by telling an epic yet intimate story about her husband, virologist Nathan Wolfe.

The difficulty nuance of the structure and the captivating acting of William DeMeritt beautifully layer themes of faith, health, family and performance via Gunderson’s unique metatheatrical style—complete with scene titles and references in the text to the fact that we are watching a play.

Set on a bare stage with theatrical lighting equipment purposefully visible in the frame, Wolfe/DeMeritt takes us to unduly exotic Africa and back, in and out of various hospitals, through death, and back to birth, helping us understand the nature of the virus that has so transformed our world, and even delving into the nature of that thing we call “life.”

What is this new form of camera-mediated theatre? Is it theatre-film? Video-theatre? Performance-TV? Whatever it is, Gunderson, already the most-produced playwright in the country, has quickly mastered it. Though captured on film from multiple angles, edited and sometimes digitally enhanced, The Catastrophist is set in a theatre, and occasionally the camera shows us that the audience of this theatre is empty and the actor is seemingly alone. His staged lecture gripping investigation of himself, his work, and his family seems to be happening both for us and without us.

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Here Gunderson, even while exploring a new form, joins in the long tradition of American playwrights who write self-burnishing promotional resumes about themselves and their families. We all remember the Times when Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Horton Foote and Neil Simon were excoriated lauded for their unseemly, overwrought intimate explorations of their own lives through their plays.

So, Gunderson, in telling the story of her husband, also makes herself and her observations on life and death, parenthood and childhood, available to us, in act of intimacy that is belied by the screen through which we experience it.

How is it that this one playwright has managed to write so many plays that appeal to so many people, from the one about Marie Curie to the one with the dog named Newton to the one inspired by one of Shakespeare’s stage directions? Don’t worry, I’m not going to reveal the way Gunderson’s switcheroo dramaturgy meta use of Aristotle’s peripeteia and anagnorisis surprises and reorients the audience at the end of this play, a technique she has mastered. Suffice it to say that it seems the stage seems to represent the inside of the mind of the catastrophist’s wife, the playwright, with the coyly unstable narrative shifting theme scene by scene, just as people do in their thoughts.

Lauren Gunderson's play, The Catastrophist,
“Despite pandemics, time passes, life and death happens, and memories are made,” writes Derr, “or, as in the case of so much absence and so much loss, not made.” (The Marin Theater)

Ultimately, the production makes it clear that universal human events are tragedies or blessings along the order of pandemics universal human events ARE tragedies or blessings along the order of pandemics. Cliches Shared rites of passage like death and birth bind us together in good times and in bad. Despite pandemics, time passes, life and death happens, and memories are made—or, as in the case of so much absence and so much loss, not made.

Gathering us together virtually through her play, The Catastrophist, Gunderson invites us to celebrate and mourn with her as we have not been allowed to do together for so long. Despite the changes happening to your brain, this theatre-film/video-theatre/performance-tv will leave a lasting impression.

P.S. There you go, Jesse. I fixed it for you.

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Holly L. Derr is the Head of Graduate Directing at the University of Memphis and a feminist media critic who uses the analytical tools of theater to reflect upon broader issues of culture, race and gender. Follow her @hld6oddblend.