At the Streetcar Crowsnest Guloein Theatre, Toronto, Ont.
Created by Torquil Campbell and Chris Abraham in collaboration with Julian Brown.
Design consultant, Remington North.
Performed by Torquil Campbell and Julian Brown
An arresting, passionate performance by Torquil Campbell and his obsession with a notorious impersonator/murderer.
The Story. Torquil Campbell has theatre in his bones. He is the son of famed Stratford actor, Douglas Campbell and Moira Wylie, herself an actress. His sister Beatrice is a stage manager and he’s married to Moya O’Connell, a hugely accomplished actress and a long-time member of the Shaw Festival.
Torquil Campbell himself started as an actor before he became the front man (singer-songwriter) for the indie pop band Stars. When he was younger Campbell was fixated with true crime reality TV. Somehow he discovered the bizarre life of German conman Christian Gerhartsreiter who spent his whole life impersonating many and various people, culminating in creating the persona of Clark Rockefeller and passing himself off as a member of that rich family. It ended in a long jail sentence.
Campbell became obsessed with Gerhartsreiter because: they looked uncannily alike, they wore the same glasses, liked the same things, of his brashness in the creations; and because at one point Campbell wondered if he could become that kind of person—reckless, fearless, dark in his thinking, murderous? As Campbell says: “There’s a surreal artistry to the way Gerhartsreiter manipulated the truth and created all the worlds for himself. I think he just might be an artist, and that really frightens me.” Thinking the murderous, calculating, manipulative Gerhartsreiter is an artist because he created these worlds for himself, also scares me that Campbell could even consider it. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Performance. The Guloein Theatre in the Streetcar Crowsnest has a section down front with round tables and chairs as if in a nightclub. The rest of the seating is as in a theatre. On stage, downstage centre, there is a standing microphone; upright is a piano; up left is a seat for Julian Brown who plays the guitar accompaniment for the whole show. I believe there is a music stand in front of him.
Torquil Campbell saunters on stage without fanfare, greets Julian Brown then goes downstage centre to the microphone. He wears black horn-rimmed glasses, a black shirt, jeans, canvas deck shoes and no socks. He approaches members of the audience at the tables with a handshake and an exaggerated joyful greeting. Once back in front of the microphone he assumes an affected body language with a shift of his hips and a hand up to his chin or side of the head. The voice is also affected and he speaks almost in a gush of stream of consciousness. The attitude is confident and almost off-handed. He goes from one side of the stage to the other, talking, engaging people.
Then he goes back to the microphone and his body language changes. He is now unaffected as is the voice. We are now listening to Torquil Campbell as himself. Before it was Clark Rockefeller, ‘obviously’ a member of the storied and rich Rockefeller family of the United States. We learn that Clark Rockefeller is one of the many persona and aliases that Gerhartsreiter assumed over the course of his life.
Campbell explains that he comes from a theatre family, one might say celebrated theatre family and gives the background, telling wonderful stories about his father. Campbell began as an actor himself but then veered off into music. True Crime is the first time he’s been on a stage as an actor in 15 years.
He explains that on one of his trips to New York for his music, Campbell also sought out many of the places where Gerhartsreiter lived. This is at the top of the show. I find it interesting that Campbell begins his telling of Gerhartsreiter’s story in the middle of it. He does not indicate in the narrative where his obsession with Gerhartsreiter began. For that we refer to the press release. The story-telling is not linear but scattered. Perhaps this adds to the intrigue?
Campbell shifts easily from telling his own story and detailing his obsession with Christian Gerhartsreiter and his many aliases. When he is playing himself Campbell is confident in the telling, but twitchy, awkward in his stance and frequently scratches his head. He strongly reminds me of Woody Allen.
Director Chris Abraham guides Campbell to reveal his obsession gradually. When Campbell is in the full grip of Gerhartsreiter–visiting him in prison a few times—(at the urging of Chris Abraham) Campbell is intense, perhaps even frighteningly so, words gush out of him. In trying to explain it to us, he seems like a man going down a rabbit hole as he looses his grip on reality. He seems aware of this loss as well because he includes concerned conversations with his wife, Moya O’Connell. While Campbell believes that he is like Gerhartsreiter—he looks like him, wears the same glasses, likes the same things, believes he could cross that line and harm—O’Connell offers the voice of reason, gently but firmly trying to get him back on track.
Chris Abraham certainly throws a lot of tech stuff at us during the performance. A bank of lights goes from dim to blinding at moments in the telling. Why, is a mystery. Julian Brown plays a composed underscore for the whole of the show. Why, is a mystery. Why is the consistent ‘guitar noodling’ necessary? I always wonder what that music adds. Mostly I find such musical inclusion an annoying distraction. Campbell also sings a few of his songs and plays the piano (once).
Comment. I can appreciate the irony of a man who comes from a theatre family becoming obsessed with a conman who assumes various identities and personae. Torquil Campbell seems to try and equate the two. They aren’t equitable. While an actor assumes the persona of a character the audience is in on the conceit. They know the guy up there is assuming a role. In the case of Gerhartsreiter most of the people he conned didn’t know he was not who he said he was and when they found out, at least in two cases, he killed them.
As Campbell falls deeper and deeper under Gerhartsreiter’s spell he tries to justify his obsession with wild reasoning. When he suggests that he made up the whole story, and then denies it, and then confirms it, and then….., I am reminded of my late father’s comment to such improbably nonsense: “Pile it in the corner.”
Torquil Campbell has written a fascinating, meandering story about a man who captured his imagination and held him hostage. His performance of that story is engrossing, compelling, and troubling. I am grateful for his inclusion of the voice of reason in this tale—his common sense wife, Moya O’Connell—to try and bring him back to reality. If in fact Campbell’s losing his grip on reality is merely ‘a performance’, then he ‘got’ me. If it is true, I hope he found his way back.
A Castleton Massive Production.
Opened: April 6, 2017.
Saw it: April 13, 2017.
Closes: April 15, 2017.
Running Time: 90 minutes.