Casem AbuLughod on upcoming role in “Russian Troll Farm,” his first big show and that time he felt like Mel Brooks

As local actor gears up for Forward Theater show running April 21-May 8, he looks back on a few stage memories.
Beth Skogen Photography
Casem AbuLughod is starring in the ensemble cast for Forward Theatre’s upcoming production of “Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy."

It’s been a good six years, but Casem AbuLughod still remembers seeing it.

You probably saw it too, if you were spending any time scrolling Facebook or Twitter in 2016: A black and white meme of a young Donald Trump, supposedly saying the following about the possibility of a presidential run, way, way back in 1998: “If I were to run, I’d run as a Republican. They’re the dumbest group of voters in the country. They believe anything on Fox News. I could lie and they’d still eat it up. I bet my numbers would be terrific.”

Thing is, Trump never said that. It was a clever piece of misinformation, posted by an online troll to cause chaos, blur the lines between truth and fiction and sow division between the political parties.

That 2016 post seems tame by comparison with some of the things that followed it. But it’s an apropos memory for AbuLughod, who’s gearing up to star in the ensemble cast of Forward Theater’s upcoming production of “Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy,” Sarah Gancher’s play about a group of Russian employees tasked with spreading misinformation online, or, as Steve Bannon so bluntly put it, “flooding the zone with shit.”

“They’re just trying to sow chaos at a point where we can’t agree on anything,” says AbuLughod of the ministers of disinformation. “It’s insidious. You don’t even realize it’s happening.”

AbuLughod plays Egor, a man he describes as “the most like the people I’ve worked with as an IT professional.” Egor is super dedicated to his job, working the algorithms and always hitting his numbers, but it’s also clearly warping him.

“In the play, Egor’s gone down the rabbit hole — he’s starting to identify with the people he’s messing with,” says AbuLughod. “He’s like a secret agent falling in love with the mark.”

“Russian Troll Farm” is right up AbuLughod’s alley. The actor, who recently became a father for the first time, loves comedies — especially dark ones — and his character gets some of the play’s best lines. This is his first full performance with Forward, although he has also performed in the company’s annual Monologue Festival. He also just joined Forward’s Advisory Company. Prior to that, he’s been a mainstay in community theater, acting in several Bartell Theater productions.

“It’s a comedy about something dark,” he says. “But if you can laugh about something, you can also talk about it, and that’s what I’m hoping for. These are people — it’s not just an algorithm. We can do something about it.”

While we had AbuLughod’s attention, we asked him to share some of his best (and worst) stage memories.

Editor’s Note: “Stage Write/Stage Wrong” is an occasional series by Madison Magazine theater reviewer Aaron R. Conklin about those occasions when live performances do not go entirely according to the stage directions. Most actors, directors and designers have the grace and style to appreciate and/or survive dropped lines, stumbles and misbehaving props, but it’s the confident ones who are willing to relive and share those experiences with us.

AbuLughod is a huge fan of being a part of ensemble shows. One of his favorites was Strollers Theatre’s 2016 production of Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” a show that paired him with some of the best actors on the local community theater scene. He relishes the ability to play off of other actors, as well as being a member of a tight-knit group.

“When the jokes would land in that show, it was the best feeling,” he says. “The nights we hit that perfectly were golden. And even when we didn’t, it was still silver. I felt like Mel Brooks.”

While AbuLughod was an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, he scored a role in Children’s Theater of Madison’s 2006 production of “Stuart Little,” plying George Little, the heroic mouse’s human brother. It was one of his earliest stage productions.

“All of a sudden, I was on this huge stage, and I’m mic’d for a show,” he recalls.

But AbuLughod, whose character was sporting a one-piece set of pajamas, wasn’t so great at attaching that microphone to his costume. Midway through opening night, the clip popped off, sending the mic down and out through AbuLughod’s pant leg and skittering across the stage. Somehow, AbuLughod managed to stay in character. He credits his experience doing stand-up and improv at the Monkey Business Institute.

“Let’s just say I suddenly became a lot louder,” he laughs. (If you’ve ever seen him perform, you know this wasn’t a tall ask for him.)

“Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy” runs April 21-May 8 in the Overture Center Playhouse.

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