One of the recurring laments in Chekhov's plays is the uselessness of "philosophizing". Characters regularly criticize themselves and each other for waxing about the future and whether the collective human condition will improve over time. This tendency to wonder aloud about the unanswerable in Chekhov is usually a mask for deeper personal questions about unrequited love, family loyalty, personal betrayal and disappointment. The need to ponder the meaning of life aloud in Chekhov's world is spurred by yearnings and failures that define the characters' situations.
In Cold, Empty, Terrible Whit McLaughlin and the Ensemble of MFA actors and designers with the the School of Drama at the University of Washington used fragments of Chekhov's The Seagull as a starting point in creating their theatre work which ponders a future where humanity has dispensed with romantic longing as a useless habit. In its place, the behaviors encouraged by 21st century market economies is embraced as meaning itself. Violence, sexual gratification, objectification and the celebration of celebrity have replaced the romanticism of longing and beauty for beauty's sake. It is a future owned by the devil of distortion and subjectivism.
The work is a collage of moments that evoke a world where repetitive gestures derived from observations about popular culture and American arcana are juxtaposed with snatches of popular music and striking stage images. The collective effect is to provoke in the viewer a sense of wonder that is both unsettling and whimsical.
Set on an abstracted shore of a mythic lake where characters from Chekhov's The Seagull have gathered to watch a play, the action of the opening moments create a sense of romantic longing in order to introduce the theme of speculation about human life "200,000 years in the future." However, this opening sequence is interrupted by a Brechtian abruption where the acting company offers cliched critiques of the scene they have just created. This interruption points out the now banal cultural cycle of creation and criticism, impulse and negation, imagination and expediency that modernity has spawned. From single reviews destroying years of creative work via unqualified theatre critics, to internet trolls who mock and deride all with abandon behind the mask of anonymity, our society has evolved into a 24 hour a day circus of media and hype where the Mona Lisa is critiqued alongside a Taylor Swift concert and local crisis events are immediately compared to the Holocaust. When everything is the same, and the same thing can be said about everything, meaning collapses into a relativistic void of noise for noises sake.
Cold, Empty, Terrible predicts a future where meaning and substance might be rendered useless, replaced instead by hyper-market and hyper-media realities that dictate human behavior, and ultimately human existence. While the tongue-in-cheek aspect of the work also digs at its own illumination of the Chekhovian prediction of loss, it clearly suggests that without the uniquely human impulse to wonder aloud about the meaning of it all, we will all be in danger of being consumed by the devil. That devil, by the way, is depicted as bizarro clown figure in a trio of manifestations that also hint at technology's role in the dehumanization of the future. Nature itself exists only as a framed projection trapped beneath the floor of the stage. It is sometimes a blue heaven, sometimes a muddy hell, but always present as if a one eyed witness to the morality play within a morality play being presented.
The acting company's gestural work that culminates in patiently evolved images shows the influence of Bausch and the aesthetic rhythm of Wilson, but more in homage than pastiche. McLaughlin uses a movement vocabulary that leans on the mythic and the archetypal, but is informed by the kinds of poses and exaggerated postures used by advertisers, seen on the streets and streamed into our phones and homes via selfies and reality shows. A contorted, abstracted version of Project Runway slices through the piece at one point, asking us to consider just what the hell has transformed us into a society of obsessive narcissists.
Bringing the piece full circle, the Chekovian characters retake the stage at the end and attempt to restart their now seemingly quaint exercise in making art for art's sake. It is as if they have decided to go on believing in the usefulness of uselessness, and in that regard, they are triumphant.