Two celebrated Canadian artists spin tales on stage, with autobiographical details woven in, testing the stability of truth and memory.
Both Torquil Campbell and Robert Lepage’s roots are in acting, though they’ve become noted Canadian artists of a different sort. Campbell is the charismatic frontman of rock act Stars, and Lepage has an impressive list of awards as a director and designer who’s worked around the world, collaborating with Cirque Du Soleil and too many others to count. But both men are now wrapping up Toronto runs on stage, their first time acting in a long while, though they’ve both cannily enlisted exceptional collaborators to support their solo turns.
Campbell’s True Crime begins with him in character, introducing himself to the audience as “Clark Rockefeller,” an alias of a notorious con artist currently serving hard time for murder. He’ll shortly drop character for a while and give some biographical detail about his own background as a member of a publicly known family; his father, brother, and wife are all veteran stage actors, and he himself pursued acting before turning to music (this writer can recall seeing him on stage with the Vancouver-based troupe Bard on The Beach). This, plus a confessed fascination with sordid mysteries and a marked physical resemblance, leads Campbell to contact “Clark” in prison and begin a correspondence.
While the basic details of both Campbell and “Clark Rockefeller” lives are matters of public record, Campbell’s story of his personal and eventual in-person encounters with the man born Christian Gerhartsreiter tantalizingly tease reveals of secrets of both men, and it slowly becomes apparent that neither is a reliable narrator. Campbell (the narrator) is willing to lie to Gerhartsreiter about the possibility of them collaborating on a record together, even going so far as to compose and record several songs that flatter the prisoner’s ego, in an attempt to get Gerhartsreiter to reveal details of his crimes. (These songs are backed by on stage musician Julian Brown, who scores the entire show, bringing in atmospheric touches that enhance the show considerably, an important element we neglected to to mention in our recent review of the last solo show at Crow’s Theatre, The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely.)
Campbell (the character) comes up with various excuses for trying to con a dangerous con man—an arts grant needs to be justified, for instance—but the clever writing more and more points to disturbingly similar reasons that Gerhartsreiter gives for his crimes. “Vanity, vanity, vanity…I was doing it all for them,” Gerhartsreiter proclaims during one interview, claiming that he only gave his victims what he thought they wanted from their interactions. We the audience are eventually implicated in Campbell’s dangerous fascination; the storyteller’s ethically dubious actions may be forgiven by, if undertaken in the pursuit of art and entertainment.
Lepage’s show betrays no hint of similar elaboration, but 887 is a similarly exceptional solo turn premised on instability—in this case, Lepage’s faltering memory as he ages, though he can recall details from his childhood with fine clarity. The titular number refers to his childhood home address, an apartment building in Quebec City which we get to know intimately, as his memories are manifested as a series of remarkable miniatures, combining elements of film and puppetry, which Lepage acts as tour guide for. His present day dilemma is the performance of a poem he’s having trouble memorizing for a ceremony, leading him to enlist an old friend from theatre school, a recently downsized broadcaster, who inadvertently reveals the existence of a “cold cut” memorial on file at CBC for Lepage, in the event of an untimely passing.
The differences between Lepage the present day character playing himself, and the narrator describing his childhood, are subtle but telling. Lepage’s barely there accent manifests more strongly when he’s speaking about his childhood experiences seeing Charles de Gaulle proclaim “vive le Québec libre!” or delivering newspapers during the culturally traumatic FLQ crisis. He also shifts into a poetic cadence when speaking about his father, a working class hero in his eyes, who Lepage, now a celebrated artist living in an upscale condo, may feel he has lost touch with. His present-day stories hint that his modern-day persona may be that of a bitter, somewhat calloused man not above manipulating an old friend’s current financial predicament to get what he wants. This all culminates with his performance of the poem (Michèle Lalonde’s Speak White), where personal and political history collide. Seeing that history through his eyes, so cleverly visually manifested by Lepage and his Ex Machina production team, is a richly detailed experience, and renders the political personal in a way perhaps theatre only can.
True Crime runs to April 15, Streetcar Crowsnest (345 Carlaw Avenue), Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Saturday, 2 p.m., $20-$40.
887 runs to April 16, Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front Street), Tuesday-Thursday & Saturday, 8 p.m., Friday, 7 p.m., Saturday & Sunday, 1 p.m., $35-$114.
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