By Mary Boyle
Live theatre, among all of the things hit hard by the pandemic, was hit very hard, as it truly requires an audience sitting close together in front of the stage to reach its full affect. Traditionally, live theatre is not filmed for mass consumption; it is so rarely done that Hamilton may have been the first filmed live theatre performance even the most ardent theatre supporter has seen. Over the course of the pandemic, many companies worked to use both film and, with some success, zoom to continue their craft, with the goal being to return to live theatre as soon as possible.
Thankfully, most of our local theatre companies are fully reopened as we near the end of this year's season, and Forward Theater in Madison is one of them; however, they are also one of the few companies who understood that the filmed version of a live theatre performance might still appeal to some audiences, and may have the additional affect of broadening their audience base. Their last production of the season, Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy by Sarah Gancher, may be viewed from wherever you have a screen and an internet connection and, though it's still not quite the same as being in the audience, it's the next best thing (and you don't have to dress up or find parking).
Directed by Jennifer Uphoff Gray, Forward's Artistic Director, Russian Troll Farm is a story of one possible version of the events that led up to the 2016 presidential election in the United States. The story takes place at the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, a real organization run by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, where we meet some of the employees: Egor (Casem AbuLughod), Steve (Andrew Rathgeber), Nikolai (Scott Haden), Masha (Cassandra Bissell), and their supervisor, Lluba (Sarah Day). Their job? To get Donald Trump elected in the 2016 presidential election in the US through the use of fake social media accounts and propaganda. Under the watchful eye of Lluba, Egor, silent and diligent, is driven to meet his quotas and win a microwave, while Steve is loud, obnoxious and convinced he is "rescuing Russian culture from Western corruption." Nikolai, meanwhile, takes a different view and can't help but feel that his storytelling work is an art form. Their office life changes when a new employee, Masha, a former journalist who believed in telling the truth, joins their ranks.
Like THE AMATEURS earlier this season, Russian Troll Farm is filmed in front of a live theatre audience, so you are experiencing it as they are in terms of sound, but it's as if you had the best seats in the house because you get a closer view. Audiences need to know that there is a lot of strong language in this production; you will be comfortable with the "F" word by the time you are done, if you weren't already. By and large, the play is a comedy with plenty of laugh out loud moments, but there is an undercurrent in the show that isn't funny, at all. In part, this is because the playwright is trying to not so subtly demonstrate the lack of certain freedoms in Russia that we take for granted, here, but also because the playwright is suggesting that Russian propaganda is solely what caused Trump to win the 2016 election, which makes the play, itself, feel a bit like propaganda.
Forward Theater is known for choosing culturally relevant productions that create important dialogue and conversation, which is something I truly respect about them. I see a lot of live theatre, and plenty of it that has made me uncomfortable, which can be a good thing. We all need to take a close look at our beliefs and assumptions, now and then. This play made me uncomfortable in a very different way, though. The production, from a technical standpoint, was great: the actors all delivered amazing performances; the set design, costumes and lighting were all very good; but, in our country where everyone is increasingly divided, particularly by political lines, this play seemed to increase that divide instead of seeking to bridge the gap. Ultimately, the audience will need to be the judge of that; to judge it, you need to see it.
RUSSIAN TROLL FARM: A WORKPLACE COMEDY runs through May 8th at The Playhouse at Overture Center, located at 201 State Street in downtown Madison. Tickets may be purchased online at www.ForwardTheater.com or by calling 608-234-5001. Purchase digital tickets for the filmed version here.
About Forward Theater
Forward Theater Company is a not-for-profit professional theater company founded to provide exceptional theater experiences for area audiences and give professional actors, designers, and directors an artistic home in Madison, Wisconsin. Forward Theater was founded on a commitment to the civic and cultural life of our community and works to support area artist, theater students and Wisconsin playwrights. Forward Theater Company is proud be a resident organization in the beautiful Overture Center for the Arts, providing opportunities for artists and audiences to explore great dramas and provoke conversations about the issues that matter the most. We are proud to partner with groups like Wisconsin Wrights, Overture Center for the Arts, the University of Wisconsin , Madison Department of Theatre and Drama, American Players Theatre, The Wisconsin Story Project, Wisconsin Public Radio, Dane County Libraries, the Wisconsin Historical Society, and Milwaukee Chamber Theatre to bring exciting, engaging, and challenging theater experiences to an ever increasing audience.