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Review: In ‘Russian Troll Farm,’ You Can’t Stop the Memes

No one misses the early days and dark theaters of the Covid pandemic, but the emergency workaround of streaming content was good for a few things anyway. People who formerly could not afford admission suddenly could, since much of it was free, and artists from anywhere could now be seen everywhere, with just a Wi-Fi connection.

That’s how I first encountered “Russian Troll Farm,” a play by Sarah Gancher intended for the stage but that had its debut, in 2020, as an online co-production of three far-flung institutions: TheaterWorks Hartford, TheaterSquared in Fayetteville, Ark., and the Brooklyn-based Civilians. At the time, I found its subject and form beautifully realized and ideally matched — the subject being online interference in the 2016 presidential election by a Russian internet agency.

“This is digitally native theater,” I wrote, “not just a play plopped into a Zoom box.”

Now the box has been ripped open, and a fully staged live work coaxed out of it. But the production of “Russian Troll Farm” that opened on Thursday at the Vineyard Theater is an entirely different, and in some ways disappointing, experience. Though still informative and trenchant, and given a swifter staging by the director Darko Tresnjak, it has lost the thrill of the original’s accommodation to the extreme constraints of its time.

Not that it is any less relevant in ours; fake news will surely be as prominent in the 2024 election cycle (is Taylor Swift a pro-Biden psy-op?) as it was in 2016. That’s when, as Gancher recounts using many real texts, posts and tweets of the time, trolls at the Internet Research Agency — a real place in St. Petersburg, Russia — devised sticky memes and other content meant to undermine confidence in the electoral process, sow general discord, legitimize Trumpism and vaporize Hillary Clinton.

But the play is less interested in classics of the conspiracy genre like #PizzaGate and Frazzledrip than in the kinds of people who would dream them up. In the manner of sitcoms like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “The Office,” “Russian Troll Farm” focuses on four such (fictional) trolls, neatly differentiated from one another and from their dragonish supervisor, Ljuba (Christine Lahti).

Egor (Haskell King) is a friendless, robotic techno-nerd who just wants to win the microwave oven that’s a prize for productivity. Steve (John Lavelle) is a Soviet revanchist who calls the Enlightenment a mistake and Gorbachev the “world’s biggest cuck.” Nikolai (Hadi Tabbal) is a moony screenwriter manqué who thinks what he does is evil but still wants “to do a good job at it” — causing Steve, who went to junior college in California, to deride him as a “human latte” and a “performative bookstore tote bag.”

The fourth troll is the newbie, Masha (Renata Friedman). A disillusioned journalist who took the job at the agency for the pay, she wants nothing more than to move to London and recover from Russia by doing yoga. Naturally she becomes the focal point of several interconnected bids for love and dominance among Steve, Nikolai and Ljuba, whose bureaucratic fury belies a troubled emotional life beneath.

The snappy dialogue draws moderate laughs, often by squeezing banal office politics against the scarier kind. (“No Nazi content unless specifically requested by supervisor,” Ljuba warns the others.) But though Gancher subtitles the play “a workplace comedy,” you may in the end be left wondering what’s funny. The trolls’ various schemes for advancement and connection all end disastrously, as many in the audience surely feel the election did, too. Nor does it help that the cast works so hard to get a response from the audience, sometimes annoyingly demanding participation and thus a kind of complicity.

Complicity was not of course possible in the no-longer-available 2020 streaming production, which required viewers to process it on the fly, in much the way they process social media, deciding for themselves what to laugh at — and what to ponder, repost or trash. Lacking that formal congruence, the live “Russian Troll Farm” has a temperature problem: Instead of cool, it feels overheated; instead of suggestive, prosaic.

That may be an unavoidable consequence of staging — not just Tresnjak’s, but anyone’s. The trolls’ absurd tweets are sometimes projected, at least partly, on a strip above the stage, but are almost always spoken aloud, making them seem merely silly, not insidious. It’s the difference between someone saying “300 missing D.C. kids, has anyone checked the tunnels? Hashtag tunnelkids” and watching it fly by, crowlike, in an endless hectic scroll.

It was likewise unsettling, in 2020, that you never quite knew where the characters existed, except in the electronic ether; now, on Alexander Dodge’s white box set, they are fixed in a highly specific, nonvirtual space, with ergo chairs and a photo of Putin. Likewise, the ear-scratching interstitial noise (by Darron L West and Beth Lake) and strobey light (by Marcus Doshi) and projection effects (by Jared Mezzocchi) are almost too gorgeously professional, failing to reproduce the deliberate crudeness of the original’s fuzz, pixelation and green-screen blur.

Crudeness is key. Not only does it elicit the poetry of Gancher’s writing, which despite its shiny surface has depth; it is also expressive in itself, because crudeness is a hallmark of the trolls’ greatest hits. Egor considers his English spelling mistakes (“libral” for “liberal”) a useful way of promoting engagement. People who comment on the errors are merely being pulled even farther into the web — and the whole point of the troll farm, as an author’s note points out, is “to stir up trouble.”

At that, it succeeded, though Russia has no patent on trolls. Indeed, the Internet Research Agency shut down last year, collateral damage from the Wagner Group rebellion, but fake news has never been riper. It’s just more local. I suppose “Russian Troll Farm” wants us to consider whether we would participate in its strange, chaotic economy of lies if given the opportunity — and a microwave.

Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy
Through Feb. 25 at Vineyard Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.

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