Stage Door Review

True Crime

Wednesday, May 3, 2023


by Torquil Campbell and Chris Abraham, directed by Chris Abraham

Castleton Massive Productions, Streetcar Crowsnest, Toronto

April 7-15, 2017;

May 2-7, 2023

Torquil: “I don’t want to disappear”

What does it mean to be obsessed with a notorious con man now serving time in a California prison for murder? Torquil Campbell’s fascinating solo play True Crime examines that question. It tells us the bizarre life of the con man, the German Christian Gerhartsreiter, who assumed numerous identities in the US including that of “Clark Rockefeller”, supposed heir to the Rockefeller fortune. It also looks into Campbell’s own obsession which even he finds disturbing. The obvious point is “How is a man who takes on different roles to get through life different from an actor – except that actors are not often found guilty of kidnapping and murder?” When is impersonation an art and when is it a crime?

Design consultant Remington North has arranged for cabaret seating around a raised square stage in front of regular raked seating and filled the auditorium with haze to evoke a smoky nightclub of the 1920s. Campbell enters and into a retro microphone sings the 1926 song “It All Depends on You” by Ray Henderson that includes the lyrics: “Each thing depends on something / And I depend on you”. The song announces the theme for the evening though we don’t yet know it.

Campbell then glad-hands his way through the people at the cabaret tables introducing himself as Clark Rockefeller, dishing out compliments and witty remarks in a clichéd “gay” voice accompanied by effeminate gestures. Just when we start to worry whether Campbell will be playing the whole show in this style, Campbell as himself interrupts Rockefeller to inform us that he doing an impersonation of Rockefeller. Campbell thinks he even looks like the man and he knows they have the same interests, like novels by Patricia Highsmith about changes of identity, and they both wear the same style of glasses. He analyzes the techniques that Rockefeller used to ingratiate himself that he has just demonstrated. Rockefeller picks out something in each person to compliment and thus serves as a type of mirror for that person that reflects them as they would like to be seen.

To do what he does best Rockefeller, like any actor, depends on an audience so he can perform. This leads Campbell to point out he understands the need for an audience because of his own background. He is the frontman for the rock group Stars. He used to act and this is his first time back on the stage in 15 years. And he comes from a famous acting family. His father was Douglas Campbell, one of Canada’s greatest actors. His brother is Benedict Campbell, an actor at both the Stratford and Shaw Festivals. His sister is Beatrice Campbell, a stage manager at the Shaw Festival And he is married to Moya O’Connell, one of the finest actors at the Shaw Festival.

Campbell tells us that his obsession with true crime goes back to his youth. Though he would never knowingly break the law, he was always fascinated by those who did and what it was that pushed them to breach that barrier. His fascination with Rockefeller began simply because of their similarity in appearance, Rockefeller viewed as a kind of Doppelgänger who lived on the other side of the law. Campbell followed the man’s career and in 2013 proposed to Chris Abraham writing a play about him. Abraham insisted that Campbell meet Rockefeller, then incarcerated in the Ironwood State Prison near Blyth California. Campbell’s recreation of these three visits with Rockefeller in prison make up the tensest, most disquieting portions of the show.

The first question Campbell blurts out in his first meeting is, “Did you murder Jonathan and Linda Sohus?” Before Rockefeller gives his answer, Campbell fills us in on the background to this explosive question. Rockefeller, then known as “Christopher Chichester”, was a tenant of Jonathan Sohus’s mother. He had inveigled his way so well into the old woman’s good graces that he hoped she would make him her heir. Unfortunately, just at the wrong moment Jonathan and his wife Linda turned up hoping to live with Mrs. Sohus. In 1985 the couple disappeared. In 1994 bones believed to be Jonathan’s were found buried in Mrs. Sohus back yard.

By this time Chichester had fled to the east coast and become Clark Rockefeller. Posing as an heir of the New York Rockefellers, he charmed his way into the heart of Sandra Boss, a highly paid business executive. He married her in 1995 and lived off her income. The couple had a daughter in 2001, but by then Sandra had become suspicious of Clark and divorced him. In 2008 Rockefeller kidnapped his daughter, moved, changed his name yet again but was discovered, apprehended, tried and convicted of kidnapping, assault and battery.

While we understand that Rockefeller, or shall we say Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, has led an unusual life, Campbell portrays him as charming but in the soulless way that serial killers are said to be charming. Campbell seems to be aware that his very obsession with such a man taints his own personality. However, matters become worse when Campbell realizes that Gerhartsreiter is playing mind games with him and that his obsession has evolved from a dark cloud to a threat. Campbell recreates tense scenes with his wife who is justly concerned that Campbell’s project is putting his family in danger.

True Crime is co-written by Chris Abraham and it is likely from him that the play explores the theatrical and metatheatrical aspects of Campbell’s obsession with Gerhartsreiter. Campbell sees that both are similar in being artists who earn their living through performing and through assuming other identities. Campbell sings one song about the fear he has of the con man’s influence over him and two others directly about his involvement with the criminal.

One question that troubles him is what level of fraud is involved in his own profession. With this, however, Campbell and Abraham are not really analyzing the case at hand but recurring to ancient views of actors and acting. The Greek word for actor is ὑποκριτής from which we derive our word “hypocrite”, likely from the low esteem in which actors were held in ancient Rome. The Church Fathers from Tertullian (160-230ad) onwards condemned play-goers as idolaters and actors as those who lead people into temptation. So viewing a con man as a type of actor and wondering how that reflects on the nature of theatre is not a new topic and could just as well have been left implicit in Campbell’s narrative.

What makes the play so effective is Campbell’s amazing performance. Gerhartsreiter as Rockefeller may be his principal impersonation, but Campbell also impersonates at least 15 other characters including his own father, Farley Granger and Robert Walker in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951) and, most hilariously, the elderly alcohol-sodden Mrs. Sohus. The play is accompanied by Julian Brown’s improvisations on electric guitar that create an eerie, dreamlike atmosphere akin to that of a film by David Lynch.

Singing is clearly where Campbell feels freest to express emotions of fear, distress and helplessness. But he is also a fine actor and his presentation of Gerhartsreiter, whose suavity can easily slide into menace, becomes increasingly chilling throughout the evening. This is a trip to the dark side you won’t want to miss.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: (from top) Torquil Campbell, © 2017 Dahlia Katz; Torquil Campbell at Banff Centre, © 2016 Norman Wong.

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