Off-Broadway Review

Truth Vs. Fake News: Russian Troll Farm, Our Class

The line between the truth and fake news becomes a blurry limbo pole the characters dance around, above and below in Sarah Gancher’s brilliantly relevant and wildly funny new play Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy, now at the Vineyard Theater. This inventive playwright starts out with the shockingly real fact that Putin’s government interfered in the 2016 presidential election by sending out conspiracy-theory-laden tweets and social-media messages from thousands of fake accounts, tipping the scales for a certain orange-hued candidate. She goes inside the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg (an actual company) and creates a frightening and fiendish look at the interrelationships among five trolls, how they turn on each other, poison the information well and threaten democracy around the world. The scary part is many of the tweets were taken from IRA fake accounts and Gancher had to make up only a few.

Haskell King, John Lavelle, Christine Lahti, Renata Friedman, and Hadi Tabbal in Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy.
Credit: Carol Rosegg

The playwright employs another innovative writing strategy by dividing the play into four sections, each from a different character’s perspective and in a different style. First we get a romantic drama-comedy with former journalist Masha (a soulfully complex Renata Friedman) and married aspiring screenwriter Nikolai (appropriately pathetic and needy Hadi Tabbal). Both have no illusions about their work and see it as a means of storytelling and creative expression. When one of their cooked-up stories about Hillary Clinton kidnapping kids though tunnels underneath Disneyland goes viral, Gancher examines the seductive thrill of controlling the narrative. Their shared interests and beliefs lead to a dangerous affair (Nikolai’s father-in-law is a powerful oligarch) and complications.

Russian Troll Farm
Christine Lahti and Renata Friedman in Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy.
Credit: Carol Rosegg

Then we get a Kafka-esque nightmare focusing on Egor (hilariously introverted Haskell King), a friendless drone whose only emotional attachments have been formed with the American virtual community. (He obsessively frets over hitting his quota of tweets and not receiving invitations to cook-outs in the US.) Steve (John Lavelle)’s segment is like an out-of-control SNL sketch satirizing spy thrillers as he attempts to rise from his subordinate position to management. In this hilarious vignette, Lavelle crashes through the fourth wall, directly addressing the audience with a scorching tirade of right-wing belligerence in a dazzling performance.

Finally, Christine Lahti tops that as Ljuba, the Soviet true-believer supervisor, in a soul-baring monologue detailing her twisted personal history which parallels that of her volatile country. Lathi makes this angry, politically repulsive woman’s point of view understandable, delivering subtle shades of grey rather than those in simple black and white.

Russian Troll Farm
Renata Friedman and Hadi Tabbal in Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy.
Credit: Carol Rosegg

Director Darko Tresnjak seamlessly blends the various motifs into a sleek, riotous whole, employing Marcus Doshi’s versatile lighting, Jared Mezzocchi’s overwhelming video and projection design, and Alexander Dodge’s sterile, all-white set.

Russian Troll Farm is the best kind of dark comedy. It makes you laugh uncontrollably at its absurd premise, yet gives you a shock of recognition when you stop guffawing. It’s then you realize this is no satire but the reality we face in our media-saturated world.

Our Class
The cast of Our Class.
Credit: Pavel Antonov

Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s Our Class, presented by Arlenkinz Players Theatre at BAM’s Fisher, Fishman space, is not as funny as Russian Troll Farm, but it does share a bold, inventive sense of theatricality, is also derived from real events, depicts a political and social crisis involving Russia and leaves a striking impression. The former Soviet Union is not the direct backdrop of the massive, yet intimate three-hour drama, but it plays a vital part. The setting is a small village in Poland and follows ten members of an elementary school class, half Catholic and Half Jewish, over the course of 70 years. After their country is invaded by Russia and before the Nazis replaced them, the Jewish population was senselessly slaughtered by the Gentile citizens of the town. The events leading up to the massacre and the long aftermath form the bulk of Slobodzianek’s incisive examination of the corrupt soul of a community. (The excellent English adaptation is by Norman Allen.)

The international ensemble of ten matter-of-factly describe the anti-Semitic terrors they endure or inflict, adding to the chilling effect. Igor Golyak’s staging is so inventive and engrossing, three hours pass like an express train. The clever use of props, Eric Dunlap’s edgy, jagged projection design, and Adam Silverman’s eerie and frightening lighting add to the endless brilliant pieces of stage business. A ladder becomes a moving train. An actor takes a video camera out of the theatre, into the lobby and out into the streets of Brooklyn to simulate a voyage from oppressive Europe to the freedom of America. Another actor twisted into position against Jan Pappelbaum’s stark blackboard set becomes the chalk-outline victim of a deadly assault. Balloons with magic-marker faces are transformed into murdered Jewish souls ascending into heaven as an actress cuts the strings binding them to the stage floor.

Our Class
Stephen Ochsner in Our Class.
Credit: Pavel Antonov

The cast is flawless, taking us from childhood innocents (with lessons drawn on the chalkboard) to players in a deadly game of hatred and bigotry to elderly survivors retreating behind TV screens and wishing to be left alone. Outstanding were Alexandra Silber’s stoic Rachelka, Richard Topol’s wise and warm Abram, Will Manning’s hypocritical priest Heniek, Gus Birney’s seductive yet pathetic Dora, and Andrey Burkoveskiy’s Menachem who goes through the most transformations from dorky kid to ruthless secret policeman avenging the deaths of his fellow Jews.

Like Russian Troll Farm, Our Class uses bold theatricality to depict a frightening chapter in history. Hopefully, we can learn the lessons of these plays and history will not repeat itself.

Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy: Feb. 8—25. Vineyard Theater, 108 E. 15th St., NYC. Running time: 100 mins. with no intermission.

Our Class: Jan. 19—Feb. 11. Arlekin Players Theatre at Brooklyn Academy of Music Fisher, Fishman Space, 321 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NY. Running time: three hours including intermission.

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