BY Rhoda Feng in Opinion | 05 MAR 24

‘Russian Troll Farm’ Brings Our Debased Online World to the Theatre

A recent of production of Sarah Gancher’s satirical play ominously primes us for the 2024 US presidential election

BY Rhoda Feng in Opinion | 05 MAR 24

Less than a year away from the US presidential election, disinformation is all over the news. Whether deepfakes, robocalls, or troll farms, disinformation – not to be confused with its dark twin misinformation – is, depending on your views, a grave threat to election integrity; a means of fomenting political and social upheaval; a tool to illicitly bolster favoured candidates and harm unfavoured ones; or a means of undermining democratic norms. Or all of the above. It also turns out to be great material for a comedy. Russian Troll Farm, a darkly funny play by Sarah Gancher, presents a fictionalised version of the Internet Research Agency, a real-life, pro-Putin propaganda outfit in Saint Petersburg. The eponymous trolls spend their days creating fake social media profiles and tweets – which Russian officials gallingly call ‘additional reality’ – to sway voters towards Trump in the months leading up to the 2016 US presidential election. The play debuted on Zoom in 2020 and recently made a welcome transfer to the stage at Vineyard Theatre, New York, where it closed this month.

Christine Lahti in Russian Troll Farm_ A Workplace Comedy ©Carol Rosegg
Christine Lahti in Russian Troll Farm, 2024. Photography: ©Carol Rosegg

Instead of occupying Hollywood Square boxes on our screens, the anti-knowledge workers sit at desks furnished with Dell laptops in an expensively sleek office (Alexander Dodge designed the set). They ‘work 72 hours on and 48 hours off’ and are so sleep-deprived that one of the characters has to bounce in his seat just to stay awake during a conversation with a colleague. A picture of Putin is mounted on a backstage wall, as if to instill message discipline, and the lone window looks out dispiritingly onto a hall. The play’s funhouse world is populated by an eclectic cast of characters. There’s Egor (Haskell King), an emotionally stunted, online workaholic who’s in it for the microwave (the top prize for highest daily post rate). He speaks in a sullen monotone and is harshly but accurately described by a colleague as an ‘off-brand replicant.’ Occupying the desk next to him is Steve (John Lavelle), a shambolic four-bellied 4chan thread come to life. The newest recruit is Masha (Renata Friedman), a former journalist who takes the job for the money and hopes to eventually move to London to ‘do yoga and just heal the shit out of myself.’ The nominal supervisor, Nikolai (Hadi Tabbal), is a disappointed screenwriter, dismissed by Steve as a ‘human latte’ who got the job by dint of marrying an oligarch’s daughter. Nikolai himself reports to Ljuba (Christine Lahti), a wasp-waisted former KGB officer with a cockatrice gaze who gets a whole act to reveal her tragic backstory.

Christine Lahti and Haskell King in Russian Troll Farm_ A Workplace Comedy ©Carol Rosegg
Christine Lahti and Haskell King in Russian Troll Farm, 2024. Photography: ©Carol Rosegg

Historians of the future seeking to understand the resistible rise of Donald Trump would do well to consult this play’s script – or to avail themselves of the digital iteration that one hopes is lurking somewhere in the ether. Actual tweets manufactured by trolls at the IRA in 2016, like ‘Pussy pot pie’ and ‘Obama called me clinger. Hillary calls me deplorable. Terrorists call me infidel. Trump calls me American’, are preserved in all their fetid glory. Steeped though it is in research, Russian Troll Farm never slips into polemic or Mueller Report redux. Instead, Gancher endows her characters with precisely the kind of complexity and interiority that gets stripped away by fake social media profiles.

Even Egor, the robotic Vulcan, reveals unexpected layers. In one scene, he tells his boss that he prefers his fake identities to be Black. ‘Numerically speaking, they are a small percentage of the overall population,’ he explains, ‘but they totally dominate the whites in every artistic, cultural and intellectual sphere. Despite all the violence directed towards them.’ It’s an alarming bit of fetishization that also proves subtly prescient. Four years later, ahead of the 2020 US presidential elections, Russian trolls attempted to inflame political tensions in the US once again – this time by ratcheting up posts about racial unrest, cosplaying as #BlackLivesMatter activists, and outsourcing social media posts to trolls from Ghana and Nigeria. The self-pitying Egor also worries that he’ll soon be rendered superfluous, replaced with AI.

Renata Friedman and Hadi Tabbal in Russian Troll Farm_ A Workplace Comedy ©Carol Rosegg
Renata Friedman and Hadi Tabbal in Russian Troll Farm, 2024. Photography: ©Carol Rosegg

In a playwright’s note, Gancher indicates that each of the play’s four parts is written in a distinct style: ‘Part One is a workplace comedy; Part Two is a Kafkaesque nightmare; Part Three is a Shakespearian revenge play; Part Four is the love child of Brecht and Annie Baker.’ Perhaps surprisingly, the play never feels disjointed. Sure, it loses some steam when the characters pause to read aloud their tweets, and the romance that develops between two of the trolls in act one feels a bit grafted on, but for much of its 100 minutes, Russian Troll Farm manages to improve upon its original digital format. Steve, a Blakean ‘tyger of wrath’ who out-trolls the other trolls, makes hay from the live medium by occasionally breaking the fourth wall. ‘What if I told you multiculturalism is ethnomasochism? Would that make you mad? What if I told you Jews control the UN? You already kind of think it!’ he says, relishing each provocation like a fine cigar. Such taunts might fail to grab us by the throat when encountered live in our debased online world, but when embodied by a Falstaffian figure sharking about for liberal pieties mere feet from us, these rhetorical questions beget other questions: does he really mean any of it? Does this man who once ran pyramid schemes really fancy himself a Mongol warrior, or is he just trying to get a rise out of us? Gancher cheats dramatic death by keeping these questions aloft and open-ended. That her play also delivers a shot in the arm is a bonus.

Main image: Haskell King, John Lavelle and Renata Friedman in Russian Troll Farm, 2024. Photography: ©Carol Rosegg

Rhoda Feng writes about theater and books for 4Columns, The Baffler, The White Review, The New Republic, The Nation, and The New York Times, among other publications.