Ben Wolfe as virologist Nathan Wolfe in the Austin Playhouse production of The catastrophist (Photo by Errich Peterson)
“Death, birth, on top of each other” – this is the general theme of Lauren Gunderson The Catastrophe. The play features her virologist husband, Nathan Wolfe, played by the Austin Playhouse’s Ben Wolfe (surprisingly, unrelated). The audience follows Nathan through a long, obligatory monologue, in which he is forced by his wife’s playwriting to tell the story of his own struggle with mortality.
Nathan Wolfe is no amateur catastrophist, having been named one of the Time‘s 100 Most Influential People for his work in viral forecasting, and Austin Playhouse co-artistic associate director Ben Wolfe is no amateur actor. Ben’s portrayal of Nathan is coincidental if not odd. For 80 uninterrupted minutes, he’s not Wolfe the actor but Wolfe the virologist, on a seemingly survival-driven mission to tell his story of, well, survival. Although he is alone on stage, he savors the fact that he is not alone in the room, assuming the non-existence of a fourth wall by opening up with the line: “What is this is an intervention? Her performance is enthusiastic, anxious and bodily, physically exuding all the emotions Gunderson observed in her husband.
What is really worth being afraid of? This question is posed by virologist Wolfe as he sifts through, in isolation, a series of perspective-altering risk statistics. His calculated paranoia combined with his inability to escape the narrative realm his wife placed him in resonates emotionally in a way that perhaps would have been less palpable before the pandemic. The protagonist clearly relies on his job – his ability to literally predict and prevent disaster – for his sanity. Periodic chest pains, enhanced by immersive sound (Robert S. Fisher) and lighting design (Mark Novick), suggest that the root of his fixation on disaster prevention is the inevitability of his own demise.
It’s also coincidental that this piece marks Austin Playhouse’s return to live, in-person performance 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 the theater when he is not busy chasing viruses. Wolfe is a staunch defender of truth, which he believes is found in science and not drama, until he finally must reconcile that some truths, like our innermost struggles, cannot be predicted. by calculation.
Commissioned in 2020 as a virtual production by the Marin Theater Company, The catastrophist is an opening act of the Austin Playhouse’s live-action return, but a callback to director and Austin Playhouse founder Don Toner’s six decades of theatrical production. The company announced its retirement in a blog post last week, stating that The catastrophist will be his last achievement. “It’s such a joy to return to acting and direct Ben Wolfe in a tour de force as well as working with stage manager Barry Miller,” Toner said in a press release. “The piece goes beyond the global catastrophes that Nathan seeks to predict, to the personal catastrophes that we often catch too late. It’s that personal part of the story that I really connected with and I think our audience will be too.”
After three years away from the public, Austin Playhouse is nothing if not aware of the privilege of participating in live theater, that held by performers and patrons. The catastrophist is undoubtedly useful for anyone who is grateful for the science of viral forecasting, the art of playwriting, or a particularly fortuitous marriage of the two.
The Austin Playhouse Doomsayer
Trinity Street Playhouse, 901 Trinity, 512/476-0084, austinplayhouse.com
Until April 9
Duration: 80 mins.