Review: “The Total Bent” (Haven Theatre, with About Face Theatre)

Pictured is Robert Cornelius singing into a microphone before a neon-lit cross blinking "Jesus Saves"

Robert Cornelius/Photo: Austin D. Oie.

You know what you’re getting into as soon as you sit down to watch “The Total Bent.” You see the full band warming up in a 1960’s-set recording studio and you vibrate with anticipation. But you’re not really ready for what the next two hours have to offer, starting with a damning gospel tune about white people can never be as good as Jesus, and ending with an emotional reckoning that is unlike anything I have seen onstage this year.
Haven and About Face’s joint production is a master class in theatricality and energy-driven performance. Lili-Anne Brown’s powerful, no holds barred direction may not solve playwright Stew and fellow composer/lyricist Heidi Rodewald’s problem establishing time and place at times, but the electric emotional current she establishes under every scene and every song ran like lightning through the audience on opening night.

Papa Joe Roy (Robert Cornelius) and his son Marty Roy (Gilbert Domally) are both talented musicians, but they are polar opposites in every other respect. Joe is a TV-sponsored preacher who questions the upright nature of the Civil Rights movement and the Montgomery bus boycott. Marty is an idealist, who wants to use gospel music to make political statements. Once the two reach an impasse, British producer, and eventual lover to Marty, Byron Blackwell  (Eric Lindahl) steps in, and encourages Marty’s questioning of God and religion. Marty soon discovers a much more ironic and self-sustaining musical voice, though Blackwell is given all the credit for his work. Meanwhile, Joe and Marty are separated by not only their beliefs and points of view; Joe fails to understand or accept his son’s sexuality, while Marty grapples with living up to his father’s expectation.

To a member, this cast is entrancing to watch onstage. Cornelius harnesses a confident coolness and forthrightness onstage, even as he swindles everyone around him. Domally as Marty transforms from a sheepish imitator to a terrific performer. And the actors in the band! Frederick Harris delights as Deacon Dennis, who calls back to each performer, and Jermaine Hill as Deacon Charlie is steady in a complicated world that rejects his intense loyalty to Joe and Marty. Brown encourages everybody in the ensemble to approach their performance full-throttle, leaving nothing left out, and so you get Breon Arzell’s impressive take on his own evocative and action-packed choreography.

The Total Bent is something special. While Domally’s movement from place to place and scene to scene via dialogue could use some clarification in the script’s studio set, the honest conflict between the men at the play’s center never fails to be gripping. Add to that, Jermaine Hill’s music direction of songs that scream subtext, and you will not find a more engaging, theatrical experience in Chicago right now.

DIE RATING: d20 — “One of the Best”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: You are not ready for what is being sung/said.

Show: “The Total Bent”

Company: Haven Theatre, in association with About Face Theatre

Venue: The Den Theatre (1333 N Milwaukee Ave)