Russian Troll Farm-A Workplace Comedy

Trolling is when someone deliberately tries to upset others online.
Trolling can lead to a pile on, when others join in the attack. 
Don’t feed the trolls – responding is likely to make things worse. Report the abuse instead. (eSafety Commissioner)

I am now convinced that Trolls could take us down before AI. Sarah Gancher’s play is a detailed primer of how easily reality is twisted, revised, and insidiously replaced by someone else’s agenda.

The Internet Research Agency ( apparently real) May 2016 – St. Petersburg, Russia. Histrionic Hollywood Russian music. Department head/authoritarian lifer, Ljuba (Christine Lahti), succinctly interviews new employee Masha (Renata Friedman) feeding the young woman acceptable responses. Masha is an intelligent, disillusioned journalist, yet another fatality of liberal thinking. She’s there, ostensibly temporarily, for the money, and plans to move to London.

Renata Friedman (Masha) and Hadi Tabbal (Nikolai)

Others in the division include: Egor (Haskell King), a friendless, automaton nerd who lives for competing in false tweets. Curiously writing as if an African American, he’s a bit too personally involved with responses from the hood. Steve (John Lavelle), a boisterous, egotistical, ambitious slob whose writing too often features Nazis, frowned upon unless requested. Steve is the kind of guy who trails toilet paper when he leaves the john. He calls Gorbachev the “world’s biggest cuck.”

And Nikolai (Hadi Tabbal), an aspiring screenwriter repeatedly warned against trying to create posts of which he’s proud. Married to the daughter of an oligarch, Nikolai is under the illusion he has immunity. “We work 72 hours on and 42 hours off,” he tells Masha, fading in and out of aphasia during their first meeting.

Haskell King (Egor) and John Lavelle (Steve)

The Agency is counting down to the U.S. 2016 election, doing everything in its power to foment suspicion and hate, pitching civil war, rousing American citizens to vote Trump. Sound familiar? All of its writers have spent time here.

Masha’s first TWEET: VALLEY BUGLE: Bloody illegal child lost at border crawled out of manhole at Disneyland. Nikolai picks up the thread linking to an all-purpose page featuring “evidence” that the Clintons are pedophiles. “Now watch,” he says, posting as LimpBizkitStan: Nice try but there’s no tunnels under Disneyland. Crawl back under your rock and attack Hillary for something real. #TrumpTrain Then as WhackaWalter: Actually the tunnel network under Disneyland has been well documented. It’s how the costumed characters get to their stations.

As T’Neesie Sands: These white people out here saying Hillary killed an immigrant baby in a dungeon under Disneyland. Screenshot. As JennaAbrams: There have been 200 kids abducted by strangers in Los Angeles province in the first few months of 2016. Crazy American NowOntheborder responds: Actually it’s 1265 kids. #inmemoriam #livesattheborder As Jenna: That’s awful. Who is standing up for these kids? Footage of Hillary testifying before congress that there is no child sex trafficking in extended Disneyland tunnel network. Link.

Christine Lahti (Ljuba) and Haskell King (Egor)

The “thread” goes viral with the speed of blinks. By the time Masha and Nikolai step down, media is buzzing about tunnels under Washington, D.C. #Tunnelkids is repeated over and over. “I feel like we just did something dirty,” Masha comments exhilarated, turned on. “It’s a rush, right?” he responds. They’re drawn to one another. When Sean Hannity picks up the thread, they cheer. Fast and clean.

Most of the tweets in this play are taken from actual Russian troll tweets sent out during the run up to the 2016 election, as accessed on the Hamilton 68 database (version 1), various articles and books, particularly Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s book Cyberwar. (Playwright Sarah Gancher)
Some real Russian TWEETS from the 2016 election:
[TEXAS LONE STAR] Obama called me clinger. Hillary calls me deplorable. Terrorists call me infidel. Trump calls me American. Great shirt!
[Big_Country_93] LGBT: You mean liquor, guns, bacon, and tits? FEK YUU [meme]
[Blacktivists]: “Trust me, underneath those KKK robes are cops, teachers, lawyers,
judges, politicians, banker, etc. All positions of power. They just pretend caring about us.”

Christine Lahti (Ljuba) and Renata Friedman (Masha)

Listening to fake, toxic posts and rejoinders makes one feel like a deer in headlights. We hear about trolls, but to witness it happening, to hear actual content and realize how fluently it gets picked up and embroidered upon is frightening. Dates flash and real video is screened as we get closer to November 2016. “Our theme is crooked Hillary. The DNC rigged the primaries for Hillary, etc etc. It’s all building to the Democratic convention, that’s the dramaturgiya. So get to work!” Luba commands. References to The Soviet Union (wistfully looking back) and Russia with its straw candidates – “He (Putin) pretends to run and we pretend to vote”- are completely credible.

Trump wins, of course. “What we did is not illegal! That’s the beauty of it! We won without even going to war — nobody wants a war!” Steve declares.

A section of in-ones, where the fourth wall disappears, gives us a look at protagonists’ history and aspirations. Characters are creatively detailed. Office relationships – some surprising – begin to threaten assumed status quo. No one is exempt. Lies can just as easily be seeded intragency. A Machiavellian plan destroys the hierarchy with swift efficiency leaving an unexpected few in charge. It’s Shakespearean.

Haskell KIng (Egor), John Lavelle (Steve), Renata Friedman (Masha)

Russian Troll Farm is original, whip smart, illuminating and subversively funny. Construction is masterful. Research adds immeasurably. The concept of bouncing is priceless. Watch for it.

Director Darko Tresnjak devises individual attributes making characters vivid. Pacing is a master class. A scene where Luba confronts Egor is marvelous in its physicality. US State wins manifest memorable chaos.

The ensemble cast is wonderful. Christine Lahti hasn’t had such a pithy role in years. Ljuba is much more than she seems. The actress takes a deep dive into psyche exposing hidden facets, unpeeling like an onion. John Lavelle’s Steve is outrageous, repellent, and oblivious. That we can see him think beneath all that hair, dirt and bravado is a credit to the actor.

Scenic design by Alexander Dodge is hard, cold, antiseptic, practical- just right. Linda Cho’s costumes are imaginative. Ms. Lahti’s wig (Tom Watson) is awful.

Lighting (Marcus Doshi), sound design – love the use of Tchaikovsky (Darron L. West/Beth Lake) and video projection (Jared Mezzocchi) are evocative, unnerving- terrific. Intimacy Director Rocio Mendez admirably contributes.

Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening Haskell King (Egor), John Lavelle (Steve), Renata Friedman (Masha), Hadi Tabbal (Nikolai)

Russian Troll Farm – A Workplace Comedy by Sarah Gancher
Directed by Darko Tresnjak
Through February 25, 2024
Vineyard Theatre 
108 East 15th Street

About Alix Cohen (1688 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.