The animating argument of True Crime is that audience members are complicit in a moral transgression. I don’t buy it. So, philosophically, the show is boring to me. But True Crime does deliver beautifully worked surfaces.
Torquil Campbell, who performs the solo text, created it with director Chris Abraham in collaboration with composer Julian Brown. It centers on Campbell’s fascination with Christian Gerhartsreiter, a con man and impostor who was convicted of both kidnapping and murder and is now incarcerated in Ironwood State Prison.
The text leans into the similarities between Campbell and Gerhartsreiter, who is identified for most of the show as Clark Rockefeller, one of his aliases. Supposedly, the two men look alike. Campbell confesses that he has always been fascinated by the murky world of true-crime television. And both men crave attention. Campbell, who also performs with the band Stars, hopes that True Crimewill mark a triumphant return to the stage and admits to the audience “a desperate existential need to please you.”
Those of us who are watching aren’t off the hook either: “You like secrets. So I’m collecting them for you.”
But please! An actor’s need for attention is of a different scale than a murderer’s. You can trust me on this: I know a lot of actors. And interest in secrets isn’t necessarily dangerous; it’s just human and I would argue that, in the theatre—which is the arena we’re in, after all—that curiosity is mostly driven by compassion.
There’s other thematic content, too, about the fact that that we all make up self-serving narratives. Of course we do.
All of these ideas are obvious and none of them are particularly scary, so when Campbell tries to undermine our sense of moral safety with them, it mostly doesn’t work—although sometimes the ideas latch onto a chunk of plot it and things almost come together.
In the unfolding story, Campbell visits Clark in prison, which gives Clark a chance to make threats against the actor’s wife and young daughter. Some of those moments are spooky, but…I started to wonder early on how much of the show was based in reality. When one of the major characters is an impostor and the other is a self-doubting actor, it’s an obvious question. And, as that question put increasing emotional distance between the text and me, I began to regard True Crime more and more as a superficial stylistic exercise.
Generally speaking, a more compelling story would help a lot; True Crime is thematically top heavy.
Fortunately, Campbell delivers a rewarding acting performance. His characterizations are clear and often funny. In Campbell’s embodiment, Clark becomes a fey, mercurial Bavarian. And Campbell’s impersonations of his wife, actor Moya O’Connell, and his deceased father, actor Douglas Campbell, are spot-on. This guy also knows exactly what he’s doing with pace and tension: as a performer he knows how to play a moment without overworking it.
There are gorgeous textures in the writing, too. When Clark is wedding his second wife, he refers to “Sandy’s strange little grey patch of a family.” And when Campbell is explaining his attraction to impostors, he says, “I like licking the sticky wet consistency of their double lives.”
The physical body of the show works well, too. The set is mostly an elegant grid of 16 lights. (Remington North is credited as the design consultant.) Composer Julian Brown accompanies Campbell on an electric guitar that moves from cool ambience to creepy insinuation. When Campbell sings, there’s a haunting reverb on his vocals and the songs themselves are darkly spacious.
I just wish the story and its ideas were more challenging and resonant.
TRUE CRIME Created by Torquil Campbell and Chris Abraham in collaboration with Julian Brown. A Castleton Massive production presented by the Arts Club Theatre Company and Crow’s Theatre. At the Arts Club’s BMO Theatre Centre on February 6. Continues until February 24.Tickets.
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