Writer: Sarah Gancher
Directors: Jared Mezzocchi & Elizabeth Williamson
Reviewer: Adrienne Sowers
PizzaGate. Wikileaks. Her emails.
The 2016 election was a tipping point in American and global culture for myriad reasons. Mistrust, skepticism, division, and vitriol spiked and have remained at a heightened level for the past four years. Though the root causes of this culture clash may not have been as clear at the onset, at least one of them is now perfectly crystalline: the manipulation of the United States electoral system for a foreign entity. Namely, Russian operatives spreading misinformation via social media. The innocuously generic-sounding “Internet Research Agency” worked to sow disinformation and sway the US election toward electing Donald Trump as President.
Though the real-life situation sounds like a dystopian cyber thriller (and in many ways, it is), playwright Sarah Gancher has taken an unexpected approach to imagining the world inside the Internet Research Agency: the workplace comedy. Following a staff of four hired trolls and their supervisor, Russian Troll Farm explores the complexities of foreign interference by detailing the interpersonal relationships of the staff in charge of creating some of the most pervasive lies on the internet. There are romantic entanglements, ideological clashes, and professional sniping set against a backdrop of Putin’s Russia. This subject matter lends itself well to the online medium to which performances have had to pivot during the Covid-19 pandemic. The visual effects and mixing are incredibly impressive – this show is performed live and the inclusion of effects, multiscreen panels, and scenic elements are superbly executed.
Despite a promising premise and compelling visual storytelling, Russian Troll Farm struggles to captivate attention for its two hour, fifteen minute run time. It is simply too long. In a live performance setting where the story and effects might feel more immersive, perhaps the passage of time would move at more of a clip. As Growtoski proved, there are some things live theatre can do that a recorded medium cannot, and there is a learning curve taking place throughout the theatre industry as to how to translate the experience of a live performance to a digital format. This play is still searching for that balance – the visual storytelling works well, but the length of individual scenes works against the aesthetic cadence. In particular, there is a moment in part three in which one character goes on a long and bizarre fantasy rant. There are moments of charm and humor, and the accompanying video works well, but the monologue is exceedingly lengthy. Ian Lassiter works well with the text and maintains great energy in his delivery, but the text in and of itself is simply too long. Similarly, in part four, Mia Katigbak gives a stunning performance in a monologue detailing the life story of a woman who has compromised herself at every turn in service to her country. The story is dramaturgically and culturally compelling, but again, the material is a bit too lengthy and dense to hold the audience’s attention.
It is a shame that the length of Russian Troll Farm works to its disservice. A compelling concept, strong design, charming moments of humor, rich dramaturgy, and engaging performances are undermined by the sheer volume of material. This play would pack a significantly more potent punch if it were condensed to ninety minutes.
It is worth noting that there was a technical snafu during the viewing of the October 21 performance, and this reviewer was unable to see the final two to three minutes of the show. So the final moments remain a bit of a mystery to this particular writer.
Available Online Through November 2 | Photo Credit: TheaterWorks Hartford