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Review: Funny, disturbing ‘Russian Troll Farm’ scores for TheaterWorks

  • October 26, 2020

TheaterWorks Hartford’s premiere digital platform production of Sarah Gancher’s timely, ominous play “Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy” welcomes theatergoers to 21st-century theater, post-pandemic style. And it’s a pip.

Co-produced with TheatreSquared in Fayetteville, Ark., and in association with New York-based The Civilians, “Russian Troll Farm” is no pedestrian Zoom experience where actors appear captive in a cross-pollination of “Hollywood Squares” and Wac-A-Mole. Co-directed by multimedia designer Jared Mezzocchi and dramaturg Elizabeth Williamson, “Russian Troll Farm” unfolds as a live movie experience in which live actors meet previously recorded sequences complementing their characters’ actions. The result is a satisfying, however disturbing, two-plus-hour adventure that never bores.


Danielle Slavick and Greg Keller in scenes from Russian Troll Farm, a play that will be produced in Zoom form by TheaterWorks Hartford.

“Russian Troll Farm,” which ran live last week with encore viewing on demand available through Nov. 2, was written and developed expressly for a digital platform, as opposed to a stage play merely Zoomed. Gancher’s hauntingly funny script draws heavily from the actual transcripts from the Russian government-backed Internet Research Agency on the eve of the 2016 election. The tweets and social media posts are lifted verbatim.

Gancher invents the rest of the play focusing on the office politics and interpersonal relationships between the workers as they create, polish and hone their various identities as they flood Twitter, Facebook and the rest with poisonous political conversations intent on manipulating potential voters.

Playwright Sarah Gancher

One earnest worker, Egor (Haskell King) carves his niche in the African-American community, for instance, while his co-workers conjure a variety of characters passing for real people. Gancher seasons her cutting-edge tale with shades of Shakespeare as Steve (Ian Lassiter) discloses his diabolical design of manipulation directly to the audience as smoothly as Richard III feeds his audience his plot to slaughter his way to the throne. This blending of mostly new devices with tried-and-true ones smartly keeps theatergoers on their toes.

Gancher’s script also explores how working around the clock in such an environment directly affects the workers’ perception of truth beyond their keyboards. In a universe where mendacity reigns in various shiny, clickable soundbites, not even the trolls can unequivocally distinguish truth from fiction. If they can’t, how do the rest of us stand a chance?

Gancher also humanizes these trolls by delving into their creative process as storytellers (“Social engineering as performance art,” one character says: “It isn’t art! It’s gossip,” another responds). She clearly reveals how the four trolls — Masha (Danielle Slavick), Nikolai (Greg Keller), Egor and Steve — conjure their characters of many stripes and develop each from post to post. Masha, the newcomer to the room, strives for genuine art in her fiction; Egor goes all-in for his fictitious life online rather than dangle in his reality; Nikolai also takes his work seriously but blinks when his supervisor Ljuba (Mia Katigbak) calls him on the carpet about his work and his extracurricular activities; and Steve uses his skill to disrupt the office and sabotage his coworkers as well as Iago ruins Othello.

While the cast is all silk, they shine brilliantly in Mezzocchi’s fluid graphic design, complemented by Amith Chandrashaker’s lighting, Brenda Abbandolo’s sets and costumes and Andre Pluess’ sound design and original music (viewers of a certain age will delight in Pluess’ use of Chaka Khan’s “Tell Me Something Good” at precisely the correct moment). One will notice that actors appear to be in the same room (whether they are or not) and not simply performing to their laptop cameras. Moreover, Mezzocchi’s design has characters recorded previously playing over live characters to create an impressionistic effect. The result is a paranoid, ominous, Orwellian tone capable of chilling the viewer throughout, with enough humor and intimacy to keep one safely distant from medicine chest or carving knife.

Those of us long steeped in traditional “two planks and a passion” presentational theater will discover a new, vital and seductive means of storytelling that will assuredly stand tall on its own two laptops if and when humans resume enjoying live theater together in the same auditorium at the same time. Meanwhile, “Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy” will more than do.

“Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy” is available on-demand through Nov. 1, 2020. Tickets can be purchased online at RussianTrollFarm.com or by calling 860-527-7838.

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