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theatre review

Seemingly simple and straightforward at first, Who Killed Spalding Gray? gradually reveals the complexities in its construction.Guntar Kravis

Who Killed Spalding Gray? is a pair of monologues in dialogue with each other – a one-man show haunted by another unseen solo performer.

"I need to tell you the truth," the Siminovitch Prize-winning playwright Daniel MacIvor says at the start of it.

In 2004, MacIvor was warned by an intuitive, the word psychics apparently prefer these days, that he had an "entity" attached to him – and headed to San Rafael to have it removed. He spent three days in the California town just north of San Francisco working with a "psychic surgeon" – who went into a series of trances to try to persuade the evil spirit to leave its host.

"I need to tell you a story," MacIvor also says. The story in question is about Howard, a depressed man who wants to kill himself but is afraid of failing at the task. He hires a hit man named Don to kill him at a moment when he is not expecting it. For three days, Howard wanders by the ocean waiting for death to strike him – and events gradually become more and more surreal.

Over and around these two interwoven monologues hovers the spectre of Spalding Gray – the American monologist behind such personal "poetic journalism" as Swimming to Cambodia and Monster in a Box (as well as an actor with a quirky résumé that included a recurring role as a therapist on The Nanny).

Gray died in 2004 by apparent suicide – around the time MacIvor was, if we are to believe him, having his entity removed.

Who Killed Spalding Gray? is framed as a kind of "ritual" in honour of the man who pioneered a version of the form of theatre MacIvor, himself, has practised since 1991's House (created, like this show, with director Daniel Brooks).

MacIvor places an empty chair and glass of water just outside of the cube of light in which designer Kimberly Purtell has confined him – and, when he tells his first-person story, he adopts his American counterpart's signature pose, sitting behind a desk with a microphone, a spiral notebook and a glass of water.

When he tells his fictional story, however, MacIvor walks around the stage and transforms himself. This is him in his more comfortable element – the Cape Breton-raised artist having mainly worked in the realm of dramatic one-man shows. That's the distinction between Gray and MacIvor's work – though, in more recent efforts such as 2010's This is What Happens Next, the Canadian has blurred the lines between autobiography and fiction, as he does again here.

You don't need to know much about Gray or MacIvor to appreciate this moving show, however. It cathartically taps into larger, resonant veins about grief, depression, escaping demons – and explores whether it's actually possible for a storyteller on a stage to lie or tell the truth (a question hardly confined to monologists in our age of social-media performance).

Its surprising elements include an appearance by Helena Bonham Carter discussing Big Fish, a film directed by her ex-husband Tim Burton and the last one seen by Gray before he, in MacIvor's words, "rode the Staten Island Ferry back and forth for the rest of his life."

Seemingly simple and straightforward at first, Who Killed Spalding Gray? gradually reveals the complexities in its construction.

Who Killed Spalding Gray? (canadianstage.com) continues to Dec. 11.

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