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Theatre in Review: Russian Troll Farm (TheaterWorks Hartford/TheatreSquared)

Mia Katigbak.

Just in time to add to our pre-election jitters comes Sarah Gancher's new play, subtitled "a workplace comedy" -- the job being the sabotage of American democracy. The characters in Russian Troll Farm work for a Moscow-based private firm that, as a government contractor, fills the ether with tweets and other social media messages designed to promote the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump -- the time is 2016 -- when not inflaming the tribal passions that have turned this country into the Divided States. Some of these trollers even understand that what they do is gravely immoral -- but, hey, a pro is a pro.

Gancher cannily assembles a quintet of misfits uniquely suited for internecine conflict in the office. They include the weak-willed Nikolai, who coasts on his (unhappy) marriage to the daughter of an oligarch and dreams of fame as a Hollywood screenwriter; the asocial Egor, so obsessed with his job that he can barely be pried away from his screen; Steve, an avowed nationalist with a Kremlin-sized chip on his shoulder and a gift for intramural infighting; and Masha, a neurotic, directionless ex-journalist with a penchant for causing chaos, usually by sleeping with her male bosses. Presiding over them is their gimlet-eyed supervisor, Ljuba, a survivor of the ancient regime who looks back on the Cold War days with a certain nostalgia. "Civilians don't understand chain of command," she remarks to her totally unworthy staff. It's her job to keep them all on point, poisoning the US national conversation with rumor, innuendo, and dubious praise for a certain unqualified billionaire.

The first act of Russian Troll Farm follows these sharp-elbowed characters as they maneuver for positions of power. Masha, who says, "I mean, I think what we do is evil but I still want to do a good job at it," teams up with Nikolai to launch a Pizzagate-style conspiracy theory. (They follow The Thirteen Laws of Storyi, the guidebook that Nikolai is convinced will make him the next William Goldman. He is also a devotee of Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point.) Of course, they start sleeping together, unleashing waves of agony and passive-aggressive behavior. Meanwhile, Steve, hoping to make time with Masha, plots to get rid of Nikolai. And Egor, who fancies himself a social media influencer of sorts and resents corporate interference, schemes with Steve to undermine Ljuba. None of this slows the daily injection of poison into the US body politic.

It's an alarmingly timely premise, tied to our worst nightmares yet delivered with a kooky sense of humor, much of it founded on the ironic fact that these efficient spreaders of disinformation can't agree on even one little thing. "We are the wrath of god," says Steve, "the virtual horde sent to punish the fuckers who wrecked Russia!" "Indeed," responds Nikolai. "I don't think this is violence. I think this is art! I think it's game design! I think it's social engineering as performance art!" When Nikolai and Masha's conspiracy theory -- involving Hillary Clinton, the tunnels under Disneyland, and child trafficking -- goes viral, their libidos are aroused. "It's a rush, right?" he says, giddy with success. "I feel like we just did something dirty," she adds, grinning. From there it's a short trip to bed. Meanwhile, Egor maintains a prodigious output, hoping to win a microwave oven given to superior performers. And Ljuba keeps turning up with directives like "I need tweets aimed at divorced white mothers with health problems, ages 55 to 74, in Kenosha, Wisconsin."

In its droll blend of petty intrigue and toxic politics, Russian Troll Farm is sufficiently hair-raising that it's sad to see Act II struggle to keep up the momentum, thanks to a pair of lengthy digressions that sap its demonic energy. The first is Steve's crazed fantasy of triumphing over his coworkers, expressed in terms of video games and the manga series Sailor's Moon, about 30 seconds of which would have been more than enough. Instead, Gancher lets it blossom into a sophomoric aria that tells us exactly nothing new about this character and his intentions (Jared Mezzocchi's media design, which is otherwise essential to the production's effect -- especially in its rendering of social media messaging -- works overtime to underline this speech with unnecessary and surprisingly crudely rendered imagery.) Next comes a monologue by Ljuba, detailing a tortured past that combines almost inhuman fealty to the Communist government with closeted lesbian affairs; it's a gripping piece of writing that, thanks to expert handling by the supremely world-weary Mia Katigbak, nearly hijacks the play. (It is practically a one-act in itself and would make a smashing audition piece.) By the time the action zeroes in on Election Night 2016, Russian Troll Farm has plenty of lost ground to recover.

Still, Gancher, best-known for her work with the musical duo The Bengsons on the autobiographical pieces Hundred Days and The Lucky Ones, is a real talent, and the cast, under the direction of Mezzocchi and Elizabeth Williamson, is an exceptionally pleasurable gang of agitators. Aside from Katigbak's Ljuba, whose chilling superiority is the result of decades of brutally suppressing her feelings, Greg Keller's Nikolai is sensitive and weaselly in equal measure; Haskell King's Egor is a deadpan, possibly on-the-spectrum, uber-nerd; and Ian Lassiter's Steve is a kind of Muscovite Proud Boy, eager for a national stage on which to act out his private resentments. Danielle Slavick nails Masha's deep-focus self-absorption, which is perfectly married to her moral blindness.

The production comes with a full design team, although only Mezzocchi's multimedia (supplemented by ViDCo) and Andre Pluess' sound design (and original music) are really central to the overall effect. The others are limited to what can be achieved with a low budget online. Scenic/costume designer Brenda Abbandandolo dresses the characters aptly. If there's little to say about Amith Chandrashaker's lighting, I hasten to add that I have yet to see one online production in the pandemic with anything other than the most basic illumination; I look forward to seeing his work in a theatre again sometime soon.

Then again, I can't wait to see all of these artists in a theatre sometime soon, possibly in a play by Sarah Gancher. Russian Troll Farm is far from perfect, but in its best moments it takes the exact temperature of these fevered times. It is available on demand at www.russiantrollfarm.com until November 2. And you know what happens on November 3. Let's hope the real-life counterparts of Nikolai, Masha, et al. are unable to influence the outcome. -- David Barbour


(26 October 2020)

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