Stars frontman Torquil Campbell brings one-man show to Montreal

Montreal's Centaur Theatre will be presenting the play True Crime this month, retracing the steps of a German con man who passed himself off as a long-lost descendant of the Rockefeller family.

True Crime tells real story of a con man who passed himself off as a Rockefeller

Torquil Campbell, Stars frontman and actor/playwright, performs in his one-man show, True Crime. (Centaur Theatre)

Music fans will recognize the star and co-creator of True Crime as the frontman for the longstanding Montreal indie band, Stars.

But Torquil Campbell is also a theatre artist who has landed bit parts in television series like Law & Order and Sex and the City — he's even shared an off-Broadway stage with Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Now, Campbell's one-man show is stopping at Montreal's Centaur Theatre, after a cross-country tour that saw stops at the Stratford festival and at venues in Calgary and Toronto.

True Crime tells the story of a German con artist by the name of Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, who passed himself off as an English Lord and, later, a descendant of the Rockefeller family.

"It's kind of breathtaking," said Campbell, of the web of lies that Gerhartsreiter constructed to keep his real identity a secret.

Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, who spent decades posing as an heir to the fabled Rockefeller oil fortune and using other identities, was found guilty in 2010 of first-degree murder. ((AP Photo/San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Walter Mancini))

The fantasy couldn't last forever, though. In 2008, Gerhartsreiter was arrested for kidnapping and murder, and is currently serving prison time at the San Quentin State Prison in California, where he will be eligible for parole by 2030. 

Gerhartsreiter has always maintained his innocence on the murder charge.

"He essentially invented himself under a number of guises," explained Campbell. Much like the central character in the 2002 film Catch Me if You Can, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, "he had all kinds of personas."

Campbell told CBC's All in a Weekend that his interest in Gerhartsreiter's story was sparked by a number of similarities he perceived between himself and this convicted criminal.

"We dress alike. We wear the same glasses," Campbell joked. "I discovered that we share many things in common."

Campbell's family, originally from Boston, even has a connection to the real Rockefellers​ — his mother worked as a nanny for the illustrious, reclusive family.

"I became obsessed with the idea that there was someone out there trying to live my life, and so I thought 'What if I try to live his?'"

The 'high-wire act'

Campbell co-wrote the play with Chris Abraham and collaborated on the music and sound design with Julian Brown. He said that as a musician, "music inevitably creeps in."

The show itself is based on a wealth of interviews and news coverage of Gerhartsreiter's trial, and Campbell described the tone of the performance as being akin to "watching a live podcast" but with the "high-wire act" energy of theatre.

The play has toured Canada, formerly under the name The Rockefeller Project. (CBC Arts)

While he's a seasoned performer in theatre and music, he said the two experiences couldn't be more different, especially playing a role that's all about deception, and building trust with the audience.

"When you play a rock show, people have heard the records. They come, they sing along. It's a communion, it's an affirmation. They cheer as soon as you walk onstage."

"In the theatre, you start a new religion every night. In walks a bunch of unbelievers and you have to make them believe in this world."

True Crime, from Crow's Theatre, plays at the Centaur Theatre in Montreal through January 27.

With files from CBC Montreal's All in a Weekend