By Torquil Campbell & Chris Abraham
Directed by Chris Abraham
A Crow’s Theatre Presentation at Streetcar Crowsnest, Toronto
January 16-20, 2018
Based on real-life impostures of a Bavarian expatriate, Christian Gerhartsreiter, in the U.S. who was convicted in 2008 of abducting his own young daughter and later of murder committed many years earlier in California, True Crime is constructed on the credo of theatre as a lie, deception, or illusion. Built from a variety of secondary evidentiary sources (video, print, film) and, most importantly, personal interviews with its notorious subject in prison, it is an absorbing 90-minute piece of suspenseful meta-theatre in which two narratives converge to play tantalizing games with the audience. Chris Abraham’s staging keeps the main focus properly on Torquil Campbell (a singer, actor who hails from a distinguished theatrical family), and this is all to the good for Campbell (whom I first saw as a young boy acting very efficiently opposite his iconic father Douglas Campbell in Shakespeare at Stratford) spins an enticing web of tale-telling. Torquil (who can boast of the fine character-actor Ben Campbell as a half-brother, and the amazingly gifted Moya O’Connell as a wife) had not acted in 18 years prior to devising this show. Both he and his subject, Gerhartsreiter (alias Clark Rockefeller, Chris Crow, Chris Chichester), are fans of Alfred Hitchcock films and Patricia Highsmith crime stories, and the show often plays out like sequences from a film noir, with stunningly portentous lighting (sometimes hazy cabaret, sometimes glaring rock concert, sometimes expressively noir) by Remington North and discreet musical accompaniment by Julian Brown, composer and multi-instrumentalist. However, there is a slanted, witty irony: the original shape-shifter was never, he claimed, into murder per se but only into intriguing ways of getting away with the crime. Gerhartsreiter preferred to call himself a confabulator because he considered himself a clever inventor whose deceptions hurt no one. This was, perhaps, the ultimate lie in a life of lies from a liar who was in a dark void that tried to swallow anyone willing to approach it.
In his glasses, short hair, and casual clothing, Campbell looks strikingly like Gerhartsreiter did in his 40s, but his incarnation of the dominant Rockefeller persona has a wryly camp vocal accent and tone, rooted, of course, in the motive of deliberate lying. Like his subject, the actor reinvents himself, turning himself from epigrammatic frontman of the band Stars into an unreliable narrator of a complicated tale about a totally unreliable criminal who has his own misleading autobiographical stories. The actor relies chiefly on himself, his own highly personal vocal skills, body language, and palpable presence. He engages briefly with warm repartee with the front-row audience, dispensing witty epigrams with just a drop or two of acid, and his only mechanical enhancement is a microphone placed near a lectern, apart from the economical but highly effective sound and lighting design. In other words, the actor/performer is left to his own devices, just as his notorious subject was in real life—the prime device being his own wit in a dual sense of sinister intelligence and off-the-wall humour. (Gehartsreiter reportedly remarked in prison that he was depressed but not unhappy.) Imposture in itself is witty because it demands total believability as artifice to be effective. What renders it corrupt is motive, and Campbell shows how this is so, though he insists (not without organic bemusement) at one point that the story is about love and how we create the story of our lives.
The criminal imposter’s tale starts in opulent San Marino (California), and moves to other locales, including Manhattan (where he pretended expertise in bond trading), Cornish (New Hampshire), and Blythe (California) (where the con-man is incarcerated in Ironwood State Prison). Campbell covers every major persona developed by Gerhartsreiter with technical ease, even expanding his repertoire to include other human figures and a barking pet dog. Just as the con-man interposed himself into quiet, conservative communities before exploiting their gullibility, Campbell exploits the audience’s willingness to be complicit in his fiction. He is utterly compelling and truthful when he reveals the extent to which he became obsessed with his subject, to the point of putting his marriage to the edge of breakdown and of putting his own physical safety and mental equilibrium into dangerous question. He shows how his relationship with the imposter breaks down, leading him to panic and paranoia. He sings tart, edgy songs in a startlingly rough, grainy voice rising to a scream, suggesting how his subject was a seemingly well-bred but sinister muse that acted like a drug on him, without benefit of therapy. This, perhaps, is what distinguishes Campbell from marvellous monologist Daniel MacIvor, who often spins a tale before unravelling it as an auto-fictional conceit. Campbell is more like the late Spalding Gray because of the real sense that the narrative is descending into a very dangerous area of the psyche with unpredictable results. At least until the last part of the show when he becomes the trickster attempting to rebound his trick off the audience. But up to that point, True Crime is like a first-rate melding of Hitchcock, Highsmith, and Tarantino, with nods to psychodrama. Both Campbell and Chris Abraham (director and co-creator) conspire marvellously in this dramatic fable in order to satisfy an audience’s need for stories in which the dividing line between truth and fiction blurs but with exciting theatrical results.