It felt eerily apropos to tune in to the live stream of Sarah Gancher’s Russian Troll Farm instead of the final presidential debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump (almost as sad and terrifying as watching What the Constitution Means to Me on the day Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court; apparently I have a gift for timing my theatergoing to the national political mood). Troll Farm is very different in aesthetic and tone from What the Constitution Means to Me, but the pieces share a preoccupation with the chinks in and failures of the American narrative, observed from within for the one and from elsewhere–from the perspective of an enemy trying to exploit them, in fact–in the other. Here, with a clock ticking down to election night in 2016, we watch the construction and refinement of the corrosive internet culture that bolstered Trump’s first-term victory. The piece, quite obviously, could not feel more eerily of the moment as we careen toward this year’s presidential election–but it’s also a history play, taking a snapshot of a very particular moment in very recent history in much the same way as Anne Washburn’s Shipwreck, also debuting this week (as an audio drama), which likewise looks back at a moment just a few years ago that in some ways feels a world away.
Imagine–remember–the world before Pizzagate? Before QAnon? Before the Wikileaks dump of the Democratic party emails? When Donald Trump was frustratingly omnipresent for a candidate that the media establishment and the “liberal elites” thought didn’t stand a chance? Russian Troll Farm takes you back to the spring and summer of 2016, as Trump nailed down first the nomination and then the presidency (the play ends on election night), and the title is a straightforward description of the play: inspired by real transcripts, it’s set in the social media department of the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, where five employees, with different backgrounds and different motivations–not to mention different kinds of allegiance to their cause–spew out the hashtags and memes and construct the fictional interactions on Twitter and Facebook and other platforms that will have such influential results. In an inside-out way, it’s a fascinating exploration of craft: the addictive thrill of creation, the emotional punch of powerful storytelling, and the ease with which human minds are enthralled by narrative.
We watch in real time as two of the staffers, middle manager Nikolai (Greg Keller) and new-girl/former journalist Masha (Danielle Slavick), construct the hashtag #tunnelkids in a frenzy of creativity that’s part aesthetic satisfaction, part flirting. This conspiracy theory involving tunnels under Disneyland and children disappearing at the Mexican border would seem like the blackest bit of surreal comedy if, y’know Pizzagate hadn’t actually spawned a gunman, and if QAnon didn’t have large swaths of the country presently believing that every Democrat is a literal bloodsucking pedophile. (There are many “if only we’d known” in this play, but then again part of what makes it genuinely unsettling is the way in which all this labor was virtually invisible, and remains incredibly difficult to spot and stop.)
Directors Jared Mezzocchi and Elizabeth Williamson, along with clever use of backgrounds in the design (set by Brenda Abbandandolo and multimedia by Mezzocchi) and strong work by the actors, give a moderately convincing illusion of intimate conversation in a shared space, but one scene where we seem to actually see actors in the same physical room still brings a thrill. What really works here, though, is the immersiveness of the online environment, which creeps under your skin on your computer screen in an uncomfortably familiar way that projections upstage could not match. It goes a long way toward making this digital realm the natural one for this piece. And in a bit of a structural end run around the inevitable limitations of the digital medium, Gancher breaks the play into four sections, most focusing on one of the five characters (Masha and Nikolai, collaborators and sometime lovers, share).
Of our five employees, Steve (Ian Lassiter) is the true believer–inclined to nationalism, wanting nothing more than to pwn libtards–or is he? According to Steve, he used to take the same positions ironically, so what’s the difference? Lassiter brings a gung-ho machismo that–like so much else about this play–would feel overblown if it weren’t so clearly drawn from an alt-right/PUA playbook that is all too familiar IRL; his act of the play is full of animated hero fantasy and disturbing wish-fulfillment. Nikolai is both a social striver, married to an oligarch’s daughter and trying to cement a place in the world by being the second-in-command, and a would-be artist, trying to use his screenwriter’s craft in the “stories” they are telling. Masha, the former journalist, is limned a little too strongly by her terrible taste in men, but also by her passion for her craft, even if she can no longer stomach writing actual journalism in a corrupt system with no respect for truth. It’s so easy for her to get caught up in the thrill of accomplishment, even when their end goal is destructive. Egor (Haskell King) seems part robot, committed to his churn rate and to winning the prizes for “most engagement”–King seems to barely blink or move his head for long sections of the piece–but his online life has subsumed his IRL one to the point where he’s developing relationships in the communities he’s supposedly disrupting, especially the Black American community. And their boss, Ljuba (Mia Katigbak), was a true believer of a different kind–old-school Soviet, former KGB, now in her seventies, with secrets of her own, and drawn by both the money and the challenge of this job even as she despises what her country has become. Ljuba’s act is suffused with nostalgia, old photographs, memory; it’s the most lyrical segment, and Katigbak gives Ljuba a mix of wistfulness and hard-ass leadership that’s both touching and absurd.
And oh yes, it’s funny. It’s hard to do comedy in a vacuum, without the shared laughter of an audience, especially with a show like this where the comedy is both black and sometimes quite bleak, where it’s hard to tell the difference between the deadpan of the absurd and the deadpan of the truly dead inside, and where the reality is at least as absurd as the comedy. It’s the perfect piece of irony for our times: That a piece of digitally created, mediated, and delivered theater is bringing a warning call not to trust what you see on the internet. That the very tools that allowed artists and theaters around the country to collaborate and bring us this piece also helped create the conditions that keep us in the audience watching alone at home. There were many times watching Russian Troll Farm when I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry–or put down my mouse and start calling voters in swing states and begging them to turn off social media till the election was over.