We’ll never know how much of a difference Kremlin-backed psyops made in the 2016 presidential election. Nor are we likely to know much about the individual lives of the internet trolls who worked tirelessly to spread lies about Hillary Clinton, stoke animus among American citizens, and generally cast doubt on the legitimacy of our democracy. But Sarah Gancher engages in captivating, highly entertaining, occasionally ludicrous speculation in Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy, now making its in-person debut at Vineyard Theatre following a virtual world premiere in 2020.
It takes place at the Internet Research Agency, the St. Petersburg troll farm founded by Putin henchman Yevgeny Prigozhin (now mysteriously deceased) and used in 2016 to boost the electoral prospects of Donald Trump. Seventy-one-year-old Ljuba (Christine Lahti) is the boss. Once responsible for state broadcasts, this KGB veteran now oversees a small cell of much younger civilians tasked with impersonating Americans on social media in the run-up to November 2016.
Nikolai (Hadi Tabbal) is her immediate lieutenant. A failed screenwriter, his marriage to an oligarch’s daughter has landed him a steady position here, where he still attempts to ply his trade as a storyteller. Egor (an appropriately robotic Haskell King) is a workhorse who consistently turns out the largest volume of posts, but he considers himself a placeholder until AI can take over. Masha (Renata Friedman, coating every line with vinegar) is the new hire, a disillusioned journalist who has joined the dark side. A paycheck is a paycheck, and in this office, only Steve (John Lavelle) could be considered a true believer in Putin’s crusade to maintain Russia as a bastion of traditional values in a world fallen to decadent homosexual barbarians. But maybe he’s just a nihilist who likes to see things blow up.
Gancher explores their backgrounds and motives in four acts, each with a radically different style. What begins as a subtext-rich office romance (building on his performance in English, Tabbal has mastered the art of the smoldering gaze) somehow transforms into a Shakespearean revenge tragedy, with Steve as our Iago. Theatrically disheveled and maniacally walking the line between menacing and absurd, Lavelle relishes every outrageous syllable of his direct address to the cosmopolitan liberals in the house: “Paste this in your Broadway sung-through rap musical: The Enlightenment was the worst event in human history! It destabilized the world, led to mass migration, war, environmental devastation… and I’m supposed to believe the point of all that was just so some fucking faggots can put wedding rings on their cocks?”
One can imagine Gancher’s admirable formal experiment flying off the rails under the care of a less skilled conductor, but director Darko Tresnjak deftly navigates the rougher tonal shifts in the script so each part feels connected and serves the larger story. If we are occasionally disoriented, that is very much grounded in a paranoid world in which, to borrow a phrase from Peter Pomerantsev, nothing is true and everything is possible.
Alexander Dodge’s severely sleek set exudes institutional oppression, a portrait of Putin hanging over a skinny window with frosted glass, perfect for observing these disinformation drones without being observed yourself. Linda Cho’s costumes help make the characters recognizable office archetypes who could be found in this very city (she especially has fun with Steve and his ill-fitting message T-shirts). Darron L. West and Beth Lake’s sound design acts as a shot of adrenaline, maintaining the fast-paced energy of the play alongside Jared Mezzocchi’s whiplash projections, which take us into the horrifying world of the terminally online. Marcus Doshi’s precise lighting occasionally allows us to escape the office — cold comfort when we consider the frigid climate that drove these people indoors.
In a late-play monologue, Ljuba walks us past the milestones of her life: a lonely childhood, a too-early adulthood, a dogged commitment to serve something larger than herself (the Soviet Union) only to see it crumble before her eyes. A genuinely terrifying ballbuster in the first three quarters of the play, Lahti endows this soliloquy with real vulnerability, so that we understand the decisions she made. In her position, cast as losers in the so-called end of history, would we have done better?
Russian Troll Farm offers audiences something the theater is particularly good at delivering: empathy for people whose lives are very different from our own. These are not the malevolent and all-powerful Russian spies lurking in the corners of Rachel Maddow’s fevered imagination. They’re just people trying to survive and not get sucked into the black hole that is the slow-motion collapse of Europe’s last remaining empire.
Gancher leaves us with the somewhat optimistic thought that far from being reversed, this collapse will be accelerated by Putin’s climate of fear and distrust. That doesn’t mean the United States won’t be harmed in the process, something we’re hopefully wiser to in 2024 than we were in 2016 — although I have my doubts.