The Catastrophe Club

photo by Jeremy Varne

The future of the theater lies largely in immersive theater. Sea Dog Theater (along with Janelle Garcia Domig and Christopher Domig) has just produced a very interesting immersive production called The Catastrophe Club. It’s written by David Burnam and directed by Shaun Fauntleroy - in both cases quite well - and produced at a location undisclosed until the day before the individual audience member sees it. You get an email telling you where to report. Very intriguing…

The small audience nearly surrounds the small main playing area. The lighting is suitably harsh. The time is 2520. We’re welcomed by our hostess, Ruth: “Hello, criminal,” she says. Peaceful assembly, it seems, is outlawed in 2520: “The last time there was an infraction for public congregation was 25 years ago. It was a wedding.”

That’s the outer frame of the play: we’ve assembled here to watch in the inner frame: four simulated people from the year 2019. Simulated, but based on “real” people - climate scientists, our contemporaries, who videoed an evening they spent in a space very much like the one we’re in. They chat about nothing specific, sniff cocaine, do some stand-up comedy for our entertainment (we’re there with them) and discuss the climate crisis while they wait for a  mysterious phone call. They’re educated scientists, but their discussion borders on cryptic, paranoid conspiracy theory: “Some night is going to be the last night of civilization.”

Ruth, it seems, has discovered their video 500 years later and recreated the evening by programming these simulations who are are acting it out for us. “This is my life’s work,” she tells us, “to bring these old people to life.” … “I stayed as true as I could to what they left behind.”

The characteristics of this particular 2520 utopia are revealed throughout the show in some very nice delayed exposition, and part of the fun is piecing together these hints. Ruth has several revealing lines:
“Curiosity - a human trait that is essentially outlawed”
“Trust is an outdated technology because we have certainty.”
“Disease is barely heard of… We scrub the memories of the dead.”
“I struggle to make sense of the pain these people lived on.”

Only once does she express any real anxiety about holding this verboten gathering: “They’ll come to shut me down,” she says cryptically And she has two mysterious lines regarding the present-day frame we’re watching: “I want to say to them Run!,” and “The world is ending.” Maybe they aren’t so paranoid after all. Or us.

In the play’s best moments, the playwright plays with the tension between the two frames very nicely. Ruth orders “Halt” and “Resume” to stop and to animate her simulations, but sometimes they malfunction. 

In its worst moment, two of our friends slide into the bathroom to have sex. First of all, that’s disgusting. Moreover, the actors stand in a corner of the playing area when they’re supposed to be in the bathroom, and the show breaks the convention - this is the real space - that it’s so carefully set up. In another ill-advised moment, Ruth mimes reprogramming one of the scientists.

Indeed, the specifics of the conceit - our relationship to the “old people” - are sometimes murky. The company needs to clarify this style, this fictional actualism.

The other problem is with the script. The inner frame - the stage life of the four climate scientists - has no drama, no story. There are events, but they have no arc.

But no matter. The Catastrophe Club is so creative that it’s important notwithstanding its flaws. Its conceit is intriguing and its dialogue is skillful - one character even quotes from The Book of Ruth. The ending is very nice indeed, and exploits the script’s clever design. If it needs development, its because it’s so promising that we want to see its next manifestation.

Steve Capra
November 2019

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