By Tulis McCall

“Russian Troll Farm” by Sarah Gancher, now at the Vineyard Theatre, is not for the faint of heart.  It is billed as a comedy-satire.  I suppose that is one way of looking at it, but, considering that the comedy more or less dissolves as we watch, that description feels like it is avoiding the depth and complexity of this piece.

I am reminded of a song from the movie musical about Hans Christian Anderson.

“Now here’s a tale of a simple fool
Just glance at a page or two
You laugh “Ha-Ha”
Then you blush a bit
For you realize as you’re reading it
That it’s also reading you.”
This is a story of people spying and creating madness, who don’t realize they are the observed as well as the observers.  Oops.
The focus is on the workers at St. Petersburg’s Internet Research Agency.  Yes it is a real thing.  The workers are tasked with manipulating social media in favor of the Russian agenda.  Which happens to include the election of Donald Trump.  They will do anything to cause a stir in cyber space (are we still calling it that?). They will copy entire profiles and create fake profiles.  They will invent personalities and hashtags.  They drum up business with the term #tunnelkids and link it to nefarious nonexistent doings by Hillary Clinton, of course.  Their job is to emulate Trump and create chaos that will derail pretty much everything.  Which means that the huge “book” they are reading is also reading them.
And it is reading us.

Ljuba (Christine Lahti) is the manager of the small office.  She ended up here because it was the destination preferred by loyal citizens 70 years ago, and by the time the Soviet Union had split apart, there was no way to stop her momentum.  Nikolai ( Hadi Tabbal) is under the impression he is secure because he is married to the daughter of a Mucky Muck who has access to a private subway line.  Egor (Haskell King) is so devoted to his work that to get him to change one dot on his path will cause a severe meltdown.  Steve (John Lavelle) is the most misleading of the group, pretending to be a gross example of everything wrong with men when he is focused on other matters.  Masha (Renata Friedman) is the newbie of the group who is focused on keeping her head above water until she can escape to London.

One of the many excellent choices by Darko Tresnjak in this production is the decision to have the actors speak with American accents and not hoke it up with Russian accents like the old films did.  It does take us a few beats to realize it is Russia – there are two exit signs in Russian and a tiny framed photo of Putin on the back wall.  Nothing else.

It also takes us awhile to let go of understanding exactly what is being discussed, because we are in way above our pay grade, and all we can do is hang on for the ride.  The atmosphere in this spare office whips into a political lather as Gancher takes us through the final months and weeks of the 2016 campaign.  To watch it all again is a tall order.  To watch it inspire these trolls is beyond painful.

How Gancher discovered all the information she packs into this story is nothing short of astonishing.  She sweeps us into a dangerous carnival ride beyond our imagining and holds us there by a combination of velocity, specificity and an understanding of human curiosity.

Not our curiosity – the troll’s.  About half way into the story Steve lets us all in to his rasion d’etre.

“You know, it’s moments like these that I know for certain my destiny is to Rescue Russian Culture from the corruption of the West.” A diatribe directed at us in the audience follows.  It is a razor’s edge.

Gancher’s writing is mesmerizing and brave.  This is gorgeous ensemble, directed with skill and grace.  The result? A production that says, ” Put on your Big Person Pants and get over here.”.

Gaucher invites us to know that there are people out there who are walking Steve’s path.  In case you think Gancher is exaggerating a little, at the end of the play some of the actual Troll Tweets appear on the walls of the set.  You would do well to set a spell and read them.

A few:

       [PAMELA KEALER]: Dr. Ben Carson: “It was the policies of Clinton-Obama which created ISIS in the 1st place.” #NeverHillary [link]
       [msm_lies]: “Former producer says Access Hollywood tape where Trump refers to “grabbing women by the p____” is fake [link]”
        [Williams&Kalvin]: “We, the black people, stand in one unity. We stand in one to say that Hillary Clinton is not our candidate.”

 

Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy by Sarah Gancher, directed by Darko Tresnjak

WITH Christine Lahti,  Renata Friedman, Haskell King, John Lavelleand and Hadi Tabbal.

Scenic design by Alexander Dodge, costume design by Linda Cho, lighting design by Marcus Doshi, sound design by Darron L West, and video & projection design by Jared Mezzocchi

The show will play a limited run through February 25, 2024 at Vineyard Theatre (108 E. 15th Street). TICKETS HERE