‘Russian Troll Farm’ Overview: Clock In, Undermine Democracy, Clock Out
They’re a group that may have been put collectively from a sitcom template: the sad-sack supervisor, the snappish supergeek, the good-looking wolf, the gruff supervisor and the bright-eyed newcomer. Collectively of their cramped quarters they banter, flirt, scheme and have fun.
However these should not characters from “The Workplace” or “The Mary Tyler Moore Present,” making paper or producing the information. Paper, for them, is passé; their world is an digital mole gap. And what they publish is definitely not information.
However, the 5 “trolls” in “Russian Troll Farm: A Office Comedy” — Sarah Gancher’s trenchant new play about state-sponsored interference within the 2016 presidential election — are, like the staff of Dunder Mifflin and WJM-TV, simply doing their jobs.
Does it make a lot distinction to the style or to the world that these jobs occur to be evil?
As a result of right here’s what these fictional characters are well-paid to do on the (actual) Web Analysis Company in St. Petersburg: create tweets and posts to sow discord and doubt amongst People approaching the polls with excessive emotion and low data. Their purpose: to elect Donald J. Trump. Their scruples: undetectable.
Take the primary mission that bright-eyed Masha (Danielle Slavick) collaborates on after arriving within the disinformation division from the pretend information division in April 2016. It’s a job typical of the unit’s work — and never removed from what really occurred that 12 months. Collaborating with the sad-sack supervisor, Nikolai (Greg Keller), she spins out a thread of tweets suggesting that tunnels resulting in the Mexican border from beneath Disneyland are a conduit for Hillary Clinton’s pedophile ring. When the hashtag #tunnelkids takes off, there’s pleasure in Room 313K, as if she had bought a poem to The New Yorker.
That you simply really feel excited, too, at the same time as you might be disgusted by a meme that by some means stays sticky in the present day, is an indication not solely of the ability of the style but in addition of Gancher’s knack for creating stress by yoking the actual to the pretend, the acquainted to the grotesque. (Her time spent as an intern on “The Colbert Report” may need honed that talent.) The content material and type are additionally ideally matched in Jared Mezzocchi and Elizabeth Williamson’s superbly realized manufacturing; that is digitally native theater, not only a play plopped right into a Zoom field.
We don’t, as an example, get to know the wolfish Steve (Ian Lassiter) solely via his dialogue with the others, pungently reactionary although it’s. (“The Enlightenment was the worst occasion in human historical past!”) We additionally expertise him via imagery. His juvenile fantasy involving the redemption of mythic Russia via the manly intercession of Vladimir Putin is rendered in hilariously clunky animation. Likewise, an after-work scene at a karaoke bar (“I’ll Be Your Mirror” is prominently lip-synced) introduces us visually to the ethical self-doubt beneath all of the bravado. Digital backdrops, often a distraction of their raggedness, are used right here as a deliberate aesthetic, permitting the trolls to occupy one house, dissolve into semitransparency and get eaten away at their edges.
Because the motion hurtles towards the election, modifications in technique parallel the hiccups — the “Entry Hollywood” tapes! The Comey letter! — within the presidential race. By October, the directives get extra weirdly particular: “I would like tweets aimed toward divorced white moms with well being issues, ages 55 to 74, in Kenosha, Wisconsin,” Ljuba, the supervisor, instructs Egor, the supergeek.
All through, the success of the trolls’ political efforts is counterpointed with their private and interpersonal failures. A romance blooms and fizzles, with dangerous penalties. Steve and Egor (Haskell King) flip their disinformation expertise in opposition to one in every of their very own, additionally with dangerous penalties.
Actually, all penalties of dangerous religion are proven to be dangerous, however every in its personal fashion. Masha and Nikolai progress from the nervous smiles of a rom-com to the unhappy eyes of a Russian epic. Steve wields filters and emojis as if he have been dwelling in TikTok, with about the identical consideration span. Ljuba (Mia Katigbak, thrillingly icy) will get a mini-documentary, Ken Burns-style; the place can it lead her however to the dustbin of historical past?
Our capacity to care about individuals as terrible as these says rather a lot about human susceptibility to the emotional manipulation the trolls follow, and greater than I care to confess about related makes use of of theater itself. But it surely’s simply that type of perception that makes Gancher’s play so pressing, sensible and chewy. No marvel the presenting establishments — TheaterWorks Hartford and TheaterSquared in Fayetteville, Ark., in affiliation with the Brooklyn-based Civilians — got here collectively after a primary visible experiment with the fabric simply seven weeks in the past to mount the sophisticated manufacturing earlier than the election. (Dwell performances proceed via Saturday; a recording will likely be out there via Nov. 2.)
I’m glad they did; “Russian Troll Farm” is likely one of the first new full-length performs I’ve seen since theater moved on-line that’s rewarding as a textual content, makes essentially the most of fantastic actors and approaches full engagement with the brand new, hybrid type. Even so, I seen the consequences of the haste. Story logic doesn’t all the time observe. A very good trim would maintain us higher centered on the important thing points. In some admittedly gratifying sequences I felt that the inventive group had fallen an excessive amount of in love with its intelligent results — a criticism Ljuba lobs repeatedly at her trolls.
That’s as a result of everybody desires to justify what they’re doing as a substitute of going through the reality. (It was a wise option to keep away from Russian accents, suggesting how common the intuition is.) Masha sees her work as journalism, even when it’s pretend; Steve sees folklore; Nikolai sees dramaturgy; and Egor sees a type of human connection in any other case totally absent from his life. Within the play’s most surprising and shifting second he speaks with reverence concerning the braveness and defiance of the Black People he’s imagined to be attempting to subvert.
Although “Russian Troll Farm” is full of deeply unhappy individuals doing deeply intolerable issues like that, it’s billed as a comedy. For now, it’s a bracingly grim one; whether or not it turns into one within the conventional sense, with a contented ending, stays to be seen. Within the meantime, it’s pretty much as good an argument as pandemic theater has but produced for turning in your laptop. And in addition for turning it off.
Russian Troll Farm
Dwell performances via Oct. 24; out there on demand Oct. 25 via Nov. 2. twhartford.org
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