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Stars singer Torquil Campbell at home on the stage in True Crime

Torquil Campbell explores the idea of shifting identity by letting us in on his fascination with a convicted criminal named Christian Gerhartsreiter.

Dahlia Katz

3.5 out of 4 stars

Title
True Crime
Written by
Torquil Campbell and Chris Abraham
Actors
Torquil Campbell
Venue
Streetcar Crowsnest
City
Toronto

Is there a real Torquil Campbell who could stand up if we asked him to do so politely?

In his new solo show, True Crime, we get sightings of all the different Torqs we know: the lovelorn frontman who sings epigrams with an edge in the band Stars; the Twitter troll who harangues the likes of Stephen Harper 140 characters at a time; and the loving middle-aged father who lives in genteel Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., with his Shaw Festival star wife.

Front and centre, however, we get a true-crime-obsessed, darkness-courting Torquil Campbell – who explores the idea of shifting identity by letting us in on his fascination with a convicted criminal named Christian Gerhartsreiter, who also went by the names Clark Rockefeller, Chip Smith and Chris Chichester.

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Gerhartsreiter's decades of living under aliases all around the United States came to an end after he was arrested on kidnapping charges in 2008, having abducted his own daughter. A few years later, he was charged and convicted for a murder in California that dated back to 1985.

Intrigued by certain parallels between himself and Gerhartsreiter (they're both shape-shifters who like Patricia Highsmith novels and attention) and a certain physical resemblance, Campbell began planning a one-man show about him that would mark his return to the stage as an actor.

He went as far as to visit and interview Gerhartsreiter in prison – where his creepy in-person interactions with the incarcerated con man made him, and especially his wife, actress Moya O'Connell, uneasy and question the whole enterprise.

At least, this is what we're told. True Crime is a play about the creation of the play that we are watching – a signature structure of the work of Campbell's collaborator here, Crow's Theatre artistic director Chris Abraham. And Campbell is definitely an unreliable narrator. In addition to portraying himself, Abraham and O'Connell, Campbell transforms himself into Gerhartsreiter at frequent intervals – speaking in a nasally, world-weary tone, wandering out into the audience at times to charm or chill audience members with aggressive aloofness. "Quel drag," he says, briefly baring his teeth, when a man in the front row won't reveal the brand of his suit.

Campbell's improvisations impress and there's a lot of wit to his writing, too, as when he says Gerhartsreiter reminded him of himself because "he seemed depressed, but not unhappy."

But it's true that your appreciation may vary based on your pre-existing knowledge of the performer – who's been singing with Stars since 2000, and has never shied away from airing his views in an opinionated, swaggering way whether on MySpace or the CBC Radio program q. (He's beefed with me online in the past over certain criticisms of the Shaw Festival, where multiple members of his family have made a living.)

Campbell's always been an unusual presence in "indie" music, which trades heavily on an idea of authenticity. Within that world, Stars has stuck out because of Campbell's unapologetically theatrical style of performance; aside from a tense anger under his surface that seems genuine, he doesn't give himself away.

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He comes by this theatricality honestly, however – his late father, Douglas Campbell, having been in the original ensemble at the Stratford Festival. Indeed, early on in True Crime, Campbell tells some stories of the legendary elder Campbell.

He's laying the groundwork for the idea that perhaps the only real truth lies in performance – in the vein of what W.H. Auden wrote: "So I wish you first a /Sense of theatre; only / Those who love illusion/ And know it will go far: / Otherwise we spend our/ Lives in a confusion / Of what we say and do with / Who we really are."

True Crime is satisfying as an exploration of such, sharing a lot in common with master monologist Daniel MacIvor's latest, Who Killed Spalding Gray? In the end, Campbell doesn't go full Peer Gynt on us – pulling back all the layers of the onion to reveal that there are only layers and nothing is inside. Instead, he goes into trickster mode, leaving us with a few possibilities of what might be "true" about his story to tantalize us.

It's only in its true-crime elements that True Crime does not entirely succeed – as Campbell hasn't quite made the murder committed in the 1980s into enough of a compelling mystery.

While his online persona can grate, Campbell onstage has more charisma, albeit of the killer variety. Having spent so much time on stage in a band, he seems to naturally connect with a live audience. He acts here from behind a music stand, on which his script is perched and at which he glances from time to time with an appealing humility and only the occasional hint of panic. This lends a deceptively casual atmosphere to a show that's actually quite polished and even virtuosic, with evocative rock-concert lighting by Remington North and backing music by onstage multi-instrumentalist Julian Brown that sets the appropriately moody mood.

For fans of the Torquil from Stars, Campbell sings the occasional original tune, too – including one he claims to have co-written with his criminal muse and doppelganger that involves some inspired barking. But True Crime is not lacking in bite either.

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True Crime continues to April 15 (crowstheatre.com).

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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