“I think what we do is evil but I still want to do a good job at it,” says Nikolai, one of the Russian trolls trying to sway the American Presidential election in Sarah Gancher’s funny and frightening new play.
“Speak for yourself,” his colleague Steve bellows. “I think we’re saving the f—ing world.”
The five characters in Russian Troll Farm might be invented, but the innocuous-sounding Internet Research Agency where they work, in an office building in St. Petersburg, actually exists. Through fake news, incendiary memes and outrageous conspiracy theories manufactured by dummy social media posts, the Russian company tried to sow discord in the U.S. and get Trump elected in 2016. The playwright has included some of these actual Tweets verbatim in the script. That the Russians are reportedly trying to interfere again makes this play extremely timely. (Just tonight: “Feds say Russia and Iran have interfered with the presidential election“) The play is also intelligent, well-acted, well-designed, and imaginatively staged online.
Russian Troll Farm starts seven months before the 2016 election and moves chronologically forward to Election Day. The first of the four acts is the longest and most entertaining, most deserving of the play’s subtitle, “A Workplace Comedy.”
Gancher introduces the five office workers, and cleverly reveals their conventional office dynamics and petty intrigue, despite the unconventional job they’re doing. Ljuba, the supervisor, admonishes her staff, telling Egor that he needs to proofread his work, Nikolai that he needs to step up his production (“You can’t work all day on one thread. I don’t care how believable, how funny, how well- written it is.”) and Steve that he has to stop with the Nazi content.
“Why?” Steve asks.
“It’s in the manual…’no Nazi content unless specifically requested by supervisor.’
I asked you for Bernie Bros. Not Nazis. When I want Nazi tweets, I’ll ask you for Nazi tweets.”
At a karaoke bar after hours, where the office workers hang out, unwind, shoot the breeze, Steve and Nikolai elaborate on their conflicting views of the job. What they’re doing is fomenting a civil war, Steve maintains, by simply bringing out the antipathy that already exists in American society. “The racial divide is just begging to be exploited.” Nikolai’s take is more lofty: “To me, everything we’re doing proves the power of art. Because human beings need stories.”
As if to demonstrate this, Nikolai partners with Masha (Danielle Slavick), who is a newcomer to the department, having transferred from the fake news division. “One of my articles got picked up by Buzzfeed and ended up on MSNBC. And two of my things made it onto Hannity.” In a brilliant flight of imagination (both for the characters, and for the playwright) Masha and Nikolai (Greg Keller) brainstorm a story that, step by step, develops into the actual, persistent, over-the-top conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton is in charge of an underground pedophilia ring. The two of them also develop an office romance, which, like most every office romances anywhere, is doomed. The act is labeled “Part One: Nikolai and Masha.”
Each of the characters gets their turn at being the focus of the remaining three acts. The playwright manages to paint these characters with enough nuance — even the unmistakably horrid ones – as to evoke at least a little of our sympathy.
Egor (Haskell King) is an antisocial geek who does nothing but work. But he gets into a dispute with Ljuba because he enjoys tweeting as if he were a Black American; he sees them as proud, strong fighters against oppression. “They are a small percentage of the overall population but they totally dominate the whites in every artistic, cultural and intellectual sphere.”
Ljuba is not interested in his personal preferences: “I need tweets aimed at divorced white mothers with health problems, ages 55 to 74 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. If we flip 20 of them we win the county. Do you understand? This is very precise.”
Steve (Ian Lassiter) proclaims himself a “traditionalist” – which apparently means sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, vulgar and neo-fascist. He’s the most obvious villain, not just because of his political attitudes, but because of his behavior in the office – sexually harassing Masha, and viciously plotting against his supervisors. But even he stars in what starts as a revenge narrative but devolves into an elaborate fantasy of conquest and heroism that involves the most elaborate video imagery in a production that already has taken out all the stops to avoid being seen as just another Zoom play.
Co-director Jared Mezzocchi, resident artist of Woolly Mammoth Theatre, is the multimedia designer of the show, creating a visual aesthetic that merges the workers with the work they do – scrolling Tweets superimposed on their faces. If the odd bursts of imagery can feel aggressively off-kilter, abstruse and jittery, that is arguably an accurate reflection of the times.
The final act of Russian Troll Farms begins with Ljuba offering a chilling autobiography of her life from heartless childhood to bloodless apparatchik, which gives us a strong taste of life under a totalitarian, and then an authoritarian, regime. It is among the most powerful passages in the play, all the more so for the performance by Mia Katigbak (the artistic director of NAATCO, the National Asian American Theatre Co.)
The plays end on Election Day 2016, as the entire office has achieved their aim, the election of Donald Trump. They knock over chairs, set off an air horn, dance around a cake. But not everybody feels like celebrating.
Egor says “This building has a bomb shelter, right? Does anybody know where it is?” – for he fears what they’ve done is an act of war. Only Steve is totally elated. His evil office machinations have reached their bitter fruition, just as his cynical world view has been vindicated. “Those are Americans, real Americans,” he exclaims, “voting for the destruction of liberal democracy worldwide!”
Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy is being presented online as a joint project by three theater companies – Theaterworks Hartford, Theatersquared of Arkansas, and The Civilians of New York – live streaming every evening through October 24, then available on demand from October 25 to November 2, 2020 – the day before Election Day 2020. Tickets are $20.20
Update: The run has been extended to November 15.
Written by Sarah Gancher. Directed by Jared Mezzocchi and Elizabeth Williamson. Cast: Greg Keller, Mia Katigbak, Danielle Slavick, Ian Lassiter and Haskell King. Set and costume design by Brenda Abbandolo, lighting design by Amith Chandrashaker ,Sound Design by Andre Pluess