TheatreSquared’s digital collaboration with Theater Works Hartford,”Russian Troll Farm,” is a brilliantly satirical, visually fascinating spectacle that blends frightening reality and trippy fantasy, complete with a superb cast and riotous comedy.
“Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy,” tells the story of a fictional group of Russian and American employees working at the all-too-real Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg during the 2016 U.S. election. The IRA – a private company contracted by Russian oligarchs and politicians for online influence campaigns – was responsible for creating hundreds of fake news stories and thousands of divisive social media “troll” accounts intended to influence the results of the election.
Playwright Sarah Gancher began workshopping her play last year, but when the COVID-19 pandemic began, she reshaped it into a site-specific play designed especially for the internet—a fitting locale given the nature of the characters’ work.
The virtual production is performed via an edited livestream in which the actors, filming themselves in their own homes, are superimposed into scenes with one another and layered over with psychedelic special effects. The convincing and captivating results intentionally create the feeling of being in a distorted reality. The editing perfectly captures the vibe of the plot, in which the characters connive to undermine both the election and each other with falsehoods, gaslighting and manipulation.
The production features an exceptional cast of five East-Coast-based actors with several Broadway credits under their collective belt. Each role seemed perfectly cast, and all the performances were very believable (aside from the fact that none of the Russian characters spoke with accents, which I suspect was a deliberate choice).
The actors played off of one another perfectly, and certainly did justice to Gancher’s brilliant comedic writing. I would imagine that having excellent chemistry and comedic timing with castmates who are spread among multiple cities is a real challenge, but the cast rose to the occasion with ease.
Danielle Slavick was particularly engaging as female lead Masha, the newest member of the IRA team and a whiz at stoking Twitter fights and fabricating conspiracy theories with her many dummy accounts. Slavick tapped into the nuances of the character, bringing a softer and more emotional side to an otherwise absurd and rollicking comedy.
Her best scenes were those alongside Mia Katigbak, whose tour de force portrayal of team supervisor Ljuba alone would have been enough to make me adore this play. Ljuba’s narrative exposition late in the show, in which she reveals her history as the daughter of state-executed Jews and a closeted lesbian in the heyday of USSR government paranoia and persecution, brought a tear to my eye.
Another shining star was Ian Lassiter, who expertly played the role of Steve, an amalgamation of all the worst guys you’ve ever met – that person who would be the ultimate racist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic memelord troll even if he wasn’t getting paid to do so. Lassiter’s greatest moment in the show is a hilarious, manic dream sequence he narrates, which is facilitated by ridiculous backgrounds and graphics and includes side characters ranging from popular anime heroines to Joseph Stalin to Vladimir Putin.
Switching from in-person to remote work has no doubt been difficult for almost everyone over the past few months. I can only imagine how much harder it has been for artists whose medium has historically relied on being together in person.
Despite the challenges posed by this new world of online theater, TheatreSquared and TWH managed to craft a true winner with “Russian Troll Farm,” a production whose quality would be undeniable even in comparison to an in-person Broadway play. This hysterical, aesthetically pleasing and timely show is a must-see for both defenders of democracy and those who relish the thought of burning it all to the ground.
“Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy” streams live for the final time Saturday at 6:30 p.m. CST. A recording of the stream will be available to view starting Sunday and ending Nov. 2. Access codes are $20.20.