Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

The truth in the fiction of ‘Russian Troll Farm,' opening at Geva

Jacob Walsh
Elizabeth Williamson, Geva's artistic director, in front of the theater.

As material for satire, world politics is unrivaled.

The 1964 film “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” is a high standard, indeed. Dark political high jinks between the Soviet Union and the United States lead to nuclear conflict.

“Dr. Strangelove” and Sarah Gancher’s “Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy” share similarities even beyond their mid-title colons.

“Russian Troll Farm,” which opens Tuesday at Geva Theater Center and runs through March 26, updates the same two combatants, Russia and the United States, except hold the bombs. It’s been compared to “The Office,” the much-loved mockumentary sitcom of office politics and interpersonal relationships, all romantic and feuding in nature. Conflict as comedy, short of “Dr. Strangelove” setting off a nuclear war.

The battleground for “Russian Troll Farm” is social media. And in this, Gancher’s shiny new play takes its cue from reality, with the story unfolding over Twitter, TikTok and Instagram.

And there is plenty of reality here as well, in the setting of Russia’s Internet Research Agency, a real organization charged with trolling through the internet enemies of the Russian state, particularly the United States. The Russian trolls use their access through social-media platforms to sow discord throughout the country. Divide Americans. Its first big triumph was in aiding Donald Trump in winning the 2016 presidential election over Hillary Clinton.

Those are the facts on which Gancher built “Russian Troll Farm.” The play is a short set of keyboard strokes from reality to fiction.


“It is a fiction, but it’s a fiction built on a lot of research, and based on a lot of things that are really happening,” says Elizabeth Williamson, Geva’s artistic director. “And I think that context of understanding some of the more extreme things in the play are just factual. There are tweets in there that Sarah pulled from a database of tweets that the Internet Research Agency posted.”

Cue dramatic music: Posts that have since mysteriously disappeared from the Internet.

But not before Gancher got her hands on them. This is a hybrid of stage and screen. The tweets created by the play’s characters, and posted on an onstage screen, are real Russian tweets. Along with the actual responses added to the conversation.

The Russian’s Internet Research Agency posted a huge volume of tweets calculated to get, as Williamson says the play suggests, “a 40- to 50-something housewife in Kenosha, Wisconsin. If she sees 30 posts in a row about ‘Hillary is crooked, Hillary is bad, Hillary is evil,’ she may have thought she was going to vote for Hillary. If she starts to think absolutely everyone she knows believes these four or five key lies, she’ll rethink her position.”

Remember Pizzagate? Before the QAnon conspiracy theories, Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign was dogged by internet chatter accusing her of taking part in a human trafficking and child-sex ring, some of which operated out the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, D.C.

Gancher dolls up that conspiracy a little by adding tunnels leading to the Mexican border from beneath Disneyland. And yet, that detail may have been a prescient piece of speculation. It was only last year that a 600-yard-long tunnel built by drug smugglers, complete with a rail system, was discovered beneath the Mexico-California border.

So if you think the shenanigans of “Russian Troll Farm” are unbelievable, think of Pizzagate. And Mexican drug cartel tunnels.

“Russian Troll Farm” is also intrigued by how the trolls are accomplishing their mission of mass distraction. The play explores the techniques of state-constructed subterfuge. With a goal of “trying to make America as a state function less well,” Williamson says. “An America that is attacking itself.”

Does Williamson herself buy into all this? “Russian Troll Farm” is a work that she’s had a hand in even before she took the Geva job last year. As Gancher was creating the play, Williamson was at her side, serving as dramaturge. That’s an unwieldy term for what you or I – common folks – would call an editor, or a literary adviser.

“I’m an outside eye or ear,” Williamson says.

One that’s watching and listening, for what the Geva experience can be.

“I feel like I’m just getting to know the audience here,” Williamson says. “The things that have really jumped out to me have been what a curious audience it is, and I think that makes sense, a city with this many colleges and universities. This audience always seems interested in more context for every show.”

The prologues, chased away by COVID, have returned. These pre-show discussions, also to be made available online, are what Williamson calls “a real hunger for talks” beyond the program notes. And Williamson is happy to provide this service, calling herself “a researcher as well as a theater artist.”

There is often truth in fiction. The best outcome from political satire is optimism. “The flip side of the nihilism is that stories can change, how people work in the world,” Williamson says. What she calls “coming-together stories…. Let’s imagine a world where this happens stories.”

Although optimism is never guaranteed.

“I certainly have my days of concern,” Williamson admits.

Jeff Spevak has been a Rochester arts reporter for nearly three decades, with seven first-place finishes in the Associated Press New York State Features Writing Awards while working for the Democrat and Chronicle.