Review: TRUE CRIME at Streetcar Crowsnest

Surefooted performer elevates show with an identity crisis

By: May. 05, 2023
Review: TRUE CRIME at Streetcar Crowsnest

Why do we tell stories, and why are we so enamoured with liars? Torquil Campbell, of the band Stars, is back in the theatre after a long hiatus to ask these questions of us - and of himself.

In TRUE CRIME, Campbell's show with co-creator Chris Abraham that originally appeared in Streetcar Crowsnest's first season in 2017, he begins the performance glad-handing with the front rows of the audience in reserved table seating as Clark Rockefeller, sniffing out who came wearing clothing expensive enough for the occasion, and dropping so many names of connections and Ivy League schools that one fears he might trip over them. In fact, the real tripwire is that none of these references are real. Clark Rockefeller is actually just the most recent alias of Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, a Bavarian man in New York City who tries on new identities like other people switch coats.

Enriching himself through the wealth of the hangers-on who tolerate him because they envy his pedigree, he plays an increasingly dangerous game, even marrying into wealth and fathering a child as Rockefeller before his actions eventually land him in prison. His story then captures Campbell's imagination, sending him on a wild ride of inquiry to confront the man himself, as well as his own darker impulses as an actor, writer, and human being.

The main draw in this show is Campbell's engaging performance. He is fully committed to his story and exploring the darker parts of humanity's desire to know other people's stories, exploring the audience's complicity in his breakdown while never letting himself off the hook. He's self-deprecating, quick on his feet, and wickedly funny. Beginning with stories about his famous late father Douglas Campbell, which he admits may not be true but nonetheless follow his father and enrich his legacy, he continues to spin a web of part-natural, part-synthetic material. Part of the allure is that we're never sure how much of the story is real, and how much is fabulation, and Campbell teases us mercilessly with both options.

As a musician, Campbell also brings his songwriting impulse into the show. The short musical breaks are seamlessly woven into the script. They deal with dark themes of violence, abandonment, and escape, using the metaphor of a dog on the run in evocative ways. Backing instrumentalist and composer Julian Brown unobtrusively and effectively adds emotional tone to Campbell's stories. One can easily forget that he's playing while still being affected by the sound, which creates a certain magic. Because Campbell is such a magnetic singer, I found myself wanting more musical breaks, not necessarily enough to call this a musical, but to create more of an arc mirroring his mental state.

Production designer Remington North cleverly uses the minimal set and lighting to contrast the complicated story; the black raised stage, bare save instruments and a music stand, features a square of large bulb lights behind the performer that evoke the bright flashes of a concert stadium performance. Light also shines in from the sides, illuminating Campbell through the haze from various angles and letting us know when things are going to get particularly threatening or dark.

The show is a lot of fun, and a perfectly enjoyable evening of theatre. However, just like its subject, its identity remains amorphous. Campbell attempts to draw parallels between Gerhartsreider's claim that he took on personas for the sake of people around him with Campbell's own need to leave an audience spellbound; the stories really exist for the people who want to believe they're making a connection with someone, especially someone famous. The argument Campbell makes here comes through loud and clear.

What makes less sense is Campbell's corresponding claim that he tells these secrets and lies because he is afraid of disappearing from the public mind. Here, the purpose of the story gets muddied; despite what "Rockefeller" says, it's evident that his actions existed predominantly for material gain, and that he was all too happy to disappear and start over several times when his lies could no longer protect him. This false equivalence puts the rest of the show on shakier ground.

In effect, TRUE CRIME is introduced and predicated on the fascination we have with those who successfully reinvent themselves. Rockefeller's growing mistreatment of his wife as his new identity begins to chafe and crack, and her attempts to detach herself from the situation, for example, are described in tense and fascinating ways.

However, when Campbell confronts with the object of his obsession, the topic of identity seems to vanish from his mind, replaced by a prurient and practical fascination with Gerhartsreiter's murder charges. This abrupt change in theme puts the story's driving force into neutral. In comparison to the question of what causes a person to create a new identity fashioned from a never-ending set of lies, the question of what drives that same person to murder to keep his secret feels simple and even banal.

This confusion is heightened due to the show's construction; we're first introduced to Clark Rockefeller as a spectacular fabulist before we learn his longer history with fabricated identities, with the supposed murder(s) only introduced later in the game - in fact, getting around to them, Campbell mentions that he really needs to backtrack and fill us in. Instead of being a shocking reveal, this only shifts focus away from the unique aspects of the story.

Also contributing to the issue here is that the two victims of Gerhartsreiter's circumstances are the least well-described characters in the show; even the older woman he initially stays with has more of an arc and relationship with him in her single appearance in the script. Campbell is compelling enough that we can switch tracks, but that track could have been laid with more characterization than a unicorn painting joke in one hand and a mean-spirited diabetes joke in the other.

However, the show's thematic identity crisis notwithstanding, Campbell's return to the stage is cause for celebration. He knows how to spin a tale that will keep you at the edge of your seat...and how to snatch that seat out from under you while you're sitting there.

Photo of Torquil Campbell by Dahlia Katz



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From This Author - Ilana Lucas

Ilana Lucas is an English professor at Toronto’s Centennial College. She holds a BA in English and Theatre from Princeton University, and an MFA in Dramaturgy and Script Development from Columbi... (read more about this author)


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