In a Plague-Time, Streaming Plays: “The Catastrophist” and “On Beckett/In Screen”

Sixteenth in a series, Notes from a Plague-Time

I would have to be a hope-killing misanthrope to recommend theatrical fare that added to our psychic load of bearing up during a deadly global pandemic, now entering its second year. I am a humanity-loving realist who understands we must manufacture our hope.

But these two plays both contain an “I hate” statement at their heart that enables their voicer to do battle with the downward thrust of the material. In “The Catastrophist,” a virologist, whose specialty is predicting and planning for viral pandemics, states flatly: “I hate pandemics!” In “On Beckett/In Screen,” an “exploration” of the work of Samuel Beckett, “famous Irish writer of famously difficult writing” — the world knows him for despair — the key line is: “I hate despair.” Actually, the line is gentler — “I do not like despair” — but it works in the same upward direction. Both plays manufacture hope.

Both are one-character works that were written and premiered shortly before the outbreak of the pandemic. With a word inserted here and new tonal emphasis there, both speak, directly and humanely, to this novel coronavirus moment. Both are superbly acted; both are short (just over an hour); and both are masterfully filmed: Not the usual long shot from a stationary camera in the orchestra, we get close-ups, over-the-shoulder shots; the camera moves. At a time when it is not at all clear how Theatre will reconstitute itself post-pandemic, these streamed productions, filmed recently, raise revenue and spirits.

While my recommendations may seem poorly timed — aren’t we now “turning the corner” on the pandemic? — something tells me (the above-cited virologist? Samuel Beckett?) that humanity will jump the gun before quelling the virus and thus trigger another wave. Both plays being so deeply human-centered, as we watch we ponder also the unthinkable death toll in America — to date, over a half-million lives, over 534,000.

“THE CATASTROPHIST,” by Lauren Gunderson, co-produced by Marin Theatre Company and Round House Theatre

Based on the life and work of Dr. Nathan Wolfe (also here and here), this play is both a dramatic and personal project: Wolfe is married to the play’s author, Lauren Gunderson (also here). The marital connection is how we discover Nathan (played by William DeMeritt): Onstage alone, trying to figure out why he’s there — “What is this: an interrogation? A confession?” Immediately he establishes he’s asking as a scientist: “Good science is a definitive result that answers an important question. What’s…going… on.” When we hear “Scene 2: Play” typed in, he laughs: “Which would indicate this is a play?” Identifying his wife as the likely author, he reveals how she “drags” him to enough plays that he gets “the drift”: “Main character, trying to figure things out, on a mission, things get hard… It all comes to a big moment of decision or some surprise.” The crux of their marriage: “Theatre is not science, that I know. It’s the opposite. She makes the ending whatever she wants it to be. I can’t do that. That would be scientific fraud.” Asking if theatre is “well-lit fraud,” they “agree to disagree.” The risk of marriage to a playwright? “They usually get the last word.”

But this is more than a marriage play, and, being more, it speaks to all of us in this pandemic moment. In short scenes, we learn how Nathan came to science: to compensate (if I may psychoanalyze) for his father’s frail health. How he got a PhD in virology (“My grandmother would want mention of Harvard”). How his Jewish upbringing impacted him, especially the concept of tikkun olam — to heal the world. His parents taught him that doing and being good, acting to heal the world, was imperative. We also learn Nathan’s ambition: If healing one human being was good, “Maybe I can do better than one….?”

Nathan’s chosen path could hardly be more relevant: He is “the virus hunter,” tracking the “viral jump from animals to humans.” Illuminating his method in a way that’s clear to scientific dummies (like me), he starts with a thought experiment: Find ways in which humanity thinks it’s special and assume we’re not. “Center of the universe? False.” His project: “Did life only originate on earth once? Highly unlikely. If Nature abhors a vacuum, biology hates a one-off.” Thus his target of viruses, whose evolution, number, and peril vastly surpass the human world. Trying to predict and plan for viral pandemics, he ranges from the jungle of Cameroon to the basement of the CDC, gaining fame (he’s one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People in the World), starting his own company.

But this catastrophist is not strictly clinical; he is human. Along with the excitement of his hunt, there is the sorrow, the crushing stakes: Thus his cry, as he waits for his coffee to brew, “I hate pandemics!” He knows the peril: how viruses are always “building capacity” — “waiting for a moment of human weakness in our systems, our sanitation, in our civility.” Nathan aims to provide pandemic “insurance”; but, can he solve for mortality? The drama builds in a deeply personal way (not revealed here) — it does all come, as his wife knows, “to a big moment of decision or some surprise.” This hero heals the world.

This production is available for streaming through July 24 at Marin Theatre Company (CA); for tickets, see here. Trailer here. Directed for the camera by Jasson Minadakis. For “PBS NewsHour” interview with Gunderson and Wolfe, see here.

“ON BECKETT/IN SCREEN,” conceived and performed by Bill Irwin, produced by Irish Repertory Theatre

A fine actor who’s also a fine clownBill Irwin (also here and here) — is the perfect vehicle to front the hard truths of Samuel Beckett (also here, here, and here) and mount a defense (sort of) to the onslaught. Beckett’s fondness for vaudevillian clowns makes the tragedy palatable; on my second viewing, this approach seems almost a courtesy, as we watch the human parade get rained on, then restart and motor on. At several points I reacted with (as the kids say) LOL.

Opening the performance, Irwin appears, in mask, tapping on the theatre’s window, to gain entry. As the camera follows him down the aisle to the stage, this ardent theatre-goer and playwright teared up: Oh, to be in a theatre again. Irwin greets us with a formal “Hello.” An over-the-shoulder shot shows us the theatre’s empty seats: “Things are different now,” he says. I had to hit pause again; then I was “in it.” Irwin establishes he is neither a Beckett scholar nor biographer: “Mine is an actor’s relationship with this language”: “It is a deep kind of knowledge — or so we actors like to think” (LOL). He makes full disclosure: He has not read, “by a very long way,” everything Beckett ever wrote; “I don’t know that I ever will.” Which leads to confession: “The writing is huge in my life — it pulls me strongly. But: It repels me, too. It’s love-hate — about which, more as we proceed” (a motif). Later Irwin says Beckett’s seeming fetishism of self-loathing and victimization causes him to want to throw the book across the room; but, “I’m always brought back.” Which probably describes the way many of us feel about Beckett. Irwin is brought back because Beckett shows how “consciousness operates.”

Irwin also evokes his Irish ancestry and American delivery. It’s in his American persona that he says the word that “has to be said at some point in this proceeding: Existentialism. It just puts you to sleep, doesn’t it?” (LOL). He presses on to the value-added update: the question of “this nation’s survival, this planet’s survival.” With this intro, and two sets of baggy pants (one “industrial-sized”), he gets to the meat — sampling Beckett’s prose: from “The Unnamable”; from “Texts for Nothing” (“Suddenly I knew, at last, I couldn’t anymore”); from “Watt” (“Personally, of course, I regret everything”).

And of course, “Waiting for Godot,” Beckett’s dramatic masterpiece. Irwin is especially illuminating here, relating his experience as part of two Broadway productions, playing two of the four characters: as Vladimir (to Nathan Lane’s Estragon, 2009) and as Lucky, the tortured beast of burden (to F. Murray Abraham’s torturer Pozzo, 1988). As if pointing (without naming) to the recently-departed Torturer-in-Chief in the White House, Irwin cites a “schematic” that director Mike Nichols used with the latter production’s cast: The play opens with two characters, Vladimir and Estragon waiting for Godot, but with the entrance of the two other characters — the torturer and the tortured — the play changes both “morally and politically,” that is to say, response is required: Will they help Lucky or not? Vladimir and Estragon, like most of humanity, do not acquit themselves well here. This time, Vladimir’s line pierced especially deeply: “Was I sleeping while the others suffered…?”

Similarly, Irwin recurs to “Watt,” saying it will not leave him alone, “because of the way it invokes violence.” Beckett’s language — ”the whacks, the moans, the cracks, the groans, the whelps, the squeaks, the belts, the shrieks” — reflects the ascending violence and cruelty seen throughout the cycles of history — and in our own Pozzo’s cruel reign.

With so much experience doing Beckett, people say to Irwin, “You must really be into despair.” But, no, he says: “I do not like despair.” I love that he repeats that line.

As it happened, my husband at my urging watched this play about the dour Irishman while I, having seen it, watched another Irishman — President Joe Biden — announce, in subdued tone, hope for America in quelling the pandemic by getting vaccines into arms, and help with the biggest relief package in American history. Contra Beckett’s ironically titled play “Happy Days,” with Winnie playing Act One buried in sand up to her waist and Act Two up to her neck, President Biden unironically tries for happier days. In Art and Life, we go on.

This production is available for streaming indefinitely at Irish Repertory Theatre (NYC); for tickets, see here. For trailers, see here and here. Directed for the camera by M. Florian Staab and Bill Irwin. For review by Terry Teachout, The Wall Street Journal theatre critic, see here.

For all posts in my series, “Notes from a Plague-Time,” see here.

Our times examined via politics, culture, morality. Author, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?" Playwright. Contributor, HuffPost. www.carlaseaquist.com.