Things are looking up at Cowpokes. The audience seats are now up on risers. And I counted five for-true spotlights. The place is beginning to look like a theater, not a dance floor that's been pressed into service by a determined, if impoverished, troupe. Mind you, in addition to trumpeting DRAMA!, "a Gay and Lesbian Arts Organization," the playbill announces the 4th annual Wet Boxer Short Contest. So, the nature of the beast has not changed, despite the improvements. In fact, the opening night of the current show, Bar Angel, was a benefit for The Human Rights Campaign, which works to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.
Bar Angel was written and directed by Lewis Routh, who has penned (and sometimes performed) several previous entertainments produced at Cowpokes, among them, People Come and Go So Quickly Here and Queerly Speaking. Bar Angel, though it has some of the comic flair one associates with Routh, also tackles more serious issues, like loneliness, self-deception and God. God does not make an entrance. He is an unheard offstage voice -- unheard by us, that is. We gather what he says, by the reaction of one of his employees, an angel named Raguel. This angel has the air of one who -- should he find himself unemployed by a downsizing in heaven -- might do quite well hustling on Rampart Street. Not that there is anything, except his good looks and youth, to suggest he would be attracted to that line of work.
At any rate, when we first meet Raguel he is sitting in a bar. Is it a gay bar? Who's to say? True, the only other patron is an unhappy, aging queen named Henry Bernstein. The bartender, a man named Gilda, wears some pretty wild mascara and lipstick. He/she also flirts outrageously with the angel and generally camps around to the amusement of all, until he is decked by a spiritual KO.
Henry is grieving because his young boyfriend emptied the older man's bank account, got back on drugs and, worst of all, flew the coop. Gradually, we learn this is not the first time Henry has flipped over a young love and been jilted. He is an inveterate "chicken hawk," according to Gilda.
What is the angel doing there? He came, he says, in answer to a prayer. Henry denies this vehemently. So the angel, through some heavenly hoodoo, puts Henry back into the moment of the prayer -- it's an ambiguous lament, but enough like a prayer to summon Raguel to this planet of humans. Raguel is Henry's personal angel. He has come here to help Henry by forcing him to a realization that will permit the return of happiness, or some approximation of that state.
The play walks a fine line between the sublime and the ridiculous, between persiflage and philosophy. Sometimes the balance seems right, other times, not quite -- for instance, when the subject of ghosts comes up. Often the angel retreats to a defiant refusal to explain things to the humans, because the humans are not entitled to know.
The three players keep the goings-on enjoyable, even through the uneven bits. Danny McNamara, with his eyeglasses and grizzled beard, manages to be angry, frustrated, self-pitying and yet, an all-right kind of guy for all that. Michael Castrillo projects an easy, assured otherworldliness as the smooth, attractive angel. Adam Hawkins gives us a drag queen Gilda with a spice of comic bitchiness.
I must confess that I didn't understand the play. The last scene has a surprise that seems pregnant with meaning. But what does it mean? And how is it the result of what has come before? Or to put it another way, has the angel accomplished his mission or was his trip to earth a wasted journey? Oh well, maybe it's just one of those things that we humans are not meant to understand.
But, I suppose there's worse things than leaving a theater with some perplexity. There are a bunch of plays I understand only too well and never want to see again. Congratulations to Lewis Routh and to this scrappy theater space on St. Claude Avenue for continuing to come up with entertaining originals.
- Send me an angel: Raguel (Michael Castrillo) offers heavenly advice to bartender Gilda (Adam Hawkins) and lovelorn Henry (Danny McNamara) in Lewis Routh's latest, Bar Angel.