Metro Weekly

Round House’s ‘The Catastrophist’ is a timely exploration of predicting pandemics and facing mortality

William DeMeritt tapped into the brain of one of the world's leading virologists in order to play "The Catastrophist"

the catastrophist
William DeMeritt Nathan in The Catastrophist — Photo: Courtesy of Marin Theatre Company and Round House Theatre

It’s safe to say most of us have learned more about viruses, vaccines, and pandemics in the past year than we ever thought we’d know. But few people on the planet truly know as much about the subject as Nathan Wolfe, author of The Viral Storm.

A virus hunter dedicated to predicting and preventing pandemics, Wolfe makes for timely subject matter in the fascinating new one-person show The Catastrophist by Lauren Gunderson, who just happens to be married to him.

For award-winning actor William DeMeritt, performing the role of Wolfe in Round House Theatre and Marin Theatre Company’s world premiere production required doing his homework. “I liked that I got to learn…about the background of what’s happening right now,” says the actor. DeMerritt also had to navigate portraying the living subject of a play written by that same man’s spouse.

“When you’re playing a living person, much less a living person who’s married to a dear friend of yours,” he says, “it’s not that there’s an added responsibility, but the consequences are much more immediate.”

Fortunately, DeMeritt could go directly to the source for guidance, in addition to the playwright and the show’s director, Jasson Minadakis.

“I had to ask Jasson and Lauren, ‘So, are we creating a Nathan, or am I doing like a Daniel Day-Lewis here with Nathan?’ And they said, ‘No, no, you don’t need to learn his mannerisms and the way he talks.’ There’s this middle ground between embodying a character and embodying him. So I was trying to embody a character based on him, but not him.”

A self-described science geek, DeMeritt “devoured” Wolfe’s book and several of his TED talks.

“To be able to sit and talk with a man who is one of the handful of leaders in different aspects of that field, I just felt a lot of empathy for what he must be going through on a daily basis,” says DeMeritt, noting all the armchair virologists and vaccine experts proliferating on the internet.

“If we have trouble with people on Facebook, can you imagine how much it just must fucking hurt him? Like, all the time you just see these knuckleheads. Am I going to tell LeBron how to hit a jump shot, am I going to tell Derek Jeter how to hit a fastball? Am I going to tell Robert De Niro how to fucking act in front of the camera?”

The Catastrophist is available virtually through February 28. Tickets are $32.50. Visit www.roundhousetheatre.org.

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André Hereford covers arts and entertainment for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at ahereford@metroweekly.com. Follow him on Twitter at @here4andre.

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