By Elizabeth Archer.
Directed by Melanie Keller.
Produced by Fraud & Phony Theatre Collective.
Playing at Trap Door Theatre, Chicago.
Toll Needs Work, but Shows New Collective’s Talent.
The new theatre group Fraud & Phony defines themselves as a collective instead of a company, they say, because they are more concerned about producing their own works when they feel it is of particular benefit to the community than in sticking to a regular schedule. Their first work, Troll, by Elizabeth Archer, demonstrates strong potential, and for the incredibly low price of the tickets, has excellent production values. As for the script itself, the premise is interesting, but once Archer departs from the known facts about cases of trolling and online harassment to examine the lives of her fictional characters, she has trouble finishing the story.
May Evans (Maggie Scrantom) is a neurosurgeon who suffers from pre-eclampsia. Under orders from other doctors to not exert herself by attempting to do work-related activities remotely, she is watched over by her husband, the online journalist Sam (Drew Shirley). He dislikes seeing her use online communication at all, partly out of concern for her stress levels, partly out of a desire to control her, and partly because May knows very little about online culture, safety, or how to operate her own devices. May also lets herself become emotionally invested in lurid news stories, and often pictures herself watching TV along with her unborn child (Alex Nolen, credited as “Giant Human Female Fetus Baby). In her imagination, the child is uncouth, obnoxious, and being sent out into a world that will destroy it.
One particularly distressing story is the suicide of Emma Jansen (Mia Vivens), a teenage girl who was tricked into sharing nude photos, and then bullied by unidentified people. Sam wrote a story related to the incident and others like it which May doesn’t know much about. However, she begins receiving strange, anonymous messages implying that her husband had some kind of untoward contact with the girls, and that the people trolling her regard themselves as vigilantes. The whole thing is very confusing for her, and Sam refuses to discuss it, not that she was talking about it reasonably herself. One night, somebody blows up their mailbox, and they realize that their online controversy is going to have real, public repercussions.
It’s a strong idea, but the problem is figuring out what to do with it. The play begins with a series of images of the basement dwelling good-for-nothing internet trolls are commonly stereotyped and dismissed as. Dennis Frymire, under a grotesque mask, plays video games, munches chips, and spams racist and sexually-charged threats. Director Melanie Keller and her design team, including lighting designer Lane Flores and sound designer Anthony Ingram, make this sequence disorientating and alarming, particularly through the use of a distorted reading of actual online threats. But in reality, as noted by the play, online creeps such as Reddit’s Violentacrez or Megan Meier’s stalker often turn out to middle-aged, professional, outwardly normal people. Their exposure, therefore, has significant consequences for them, but it’s hard for the public to know what, exactly, those are, other than the loss of their jobs.
Archer’s speculation on the inner lives of trolls is just that: speculative, and the characters she creates don’t have the nobility required for tragedy. Maggie Cain convincingly plays Sam’s mother, Brenda, an overbearing woman who refuses to see anything wrong with her son’s actions, and as played by Shirley, Sam himself is little more than a vicious coward. May, despite being a neurosurgeon, is incapable of basic communication when under any kind of pressure, which is during most of the play. During heated arguments, she screams incoherently, and when in danger, she freezes and displays a complete lack of common sense. Several flashbacks to her and Sam’s wedding day feel like annoying digressions, and throw off the pace of the play. The scenes between her and Nolen are amusing and touching, but firmly rooted in her neurosis, which is not directly related to the play’s subject matter. Troll still has lots of good qualities—notably, its design, and the author’s understanding of online culture—and is a promising beginning. It has its flaws, but for such a cheap admission price, the audience suffers little because of them.
Reviewed July 30, 2016.
Playing at Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W Cortland St, Chicago. Performances run through August 13. Running time is ninety minutes.