In the competitive national and international air guitar scene, contestants vie for championships and prizes by pretending to play (or “shred”) imaginary guitars to 60-second tracks from classic rock ‘n’ roll. Typically their performances—intensely physical and crazily choreographed—are more over the top than real rockers’. Now, thanks to Playwright Chelsea Marcantel’s uproarious Airness, you can not only drop in on that weird world—you can rollick in an all-out comedy that’s fricking funny, hella heartfelt, and badass brilliant.
Marcantel’s play, now getting its DC premiere in a co-production by Keegan Theatre and 1st Stage, first stirred excitement two years ago at the Humana Festival. As directed by Christina A. Coakley, Airness lives up to that buzz and then some. An incredibly talented cast and inspired design team have created a rock-your-world theatrical experience that’s as feel-good as a concert by your favorite rockstars—with an all-access pass to their dramas off-stage.
The story makes stops at dingy dive bars in cities across the country: Staten Island, San Diego, Chicago, Boston, L.A…. Centerstage, Set Designer Matthew J. Keenan has installed a funky bar with barstools on a worn tile floor. Overhead is a screen ID’ing the city we’re in, and beside it are Projection Designer Nitsan Scharf’s eye-popping mashups of archival rock music videos.
Stage left is a modular unit that functions as a platform for air guitar performances, and stage right is a set piece that becomes various green rooms and backstage areas. Properties and Set Dressing Designer Cindy Landrum Jacobs has accessorized the stage with an awesome display of music posters, booze bottles, and other paraphernalia to sweep us into the scene and make us feel we are somewhere really cool.
Quickly we meet a tribe of air guitarists whom we will follow as they trek from contest to contest. An Announcer (Forrest A. Hainline IV “The Fahking Rockr”) introduces them by their idiosyncratic stage personas: Shreddy Eddy (Harrison Smith), Golden Thunder (Gary L. Perkins III), Facebender (Chris Stezin), and Cannibal Queen (Dani Stoller). A fifth, D Vicious (Drew Kopas), the reigning champion, shreds his air guitar to prerecorded cheers and applause—and he’s so good we cannot help but clap along, becoming in that moment the contest crowd for all the air guitar acts to come.
There’s witty banter among them about song choices and past contests, then a newcomer arrives, Nina (Billie Krishawn). Nina plays real guitar in a real band, and now wants to compete at air guitar. The coaching she gets from the tribe, and especially from Shreddy Eddy, brings her and us up to speed on the rules and wherefores of the air guitar world. For instance, there are six “pillars” on which contestants are judged: artistic merit, originality, feeling, technical ability, charisma/stage presence, and an elusive quality known as “airness,” which, as Nina and we learn, is a kind of inner authenticity and personal truthfulness.
Afterward the catty Cannibal Queen—accustomed to being “the only vagina in the room”—gives Nina private pointers on what it means to be a girl in this boy’s club: “You have to fight for every second of stage time and that starts with not dressing like a prostitute.” Marcantel’s eye on the gender politics of her story is both clever and keen.
The cast members etch each character so vividly, it’s impossible to single any out; they are as individuals and as an ensemble one of the strongest casts I’ve seen on a DC stage.
Along the way there are some emotional upheavals among them. Nina, for instance, believed that she and D Vicious were engaged, but she learns he’s getting it on with Cannibal Queen. And Facebender’s estranged daughter shows up for a show; he hasn’t seen her or her mother for six years. As “the man who ain’t afraid to rock with his heart on his sleeve,” Facebender tries to reach out, reconnect, and speak to her through his air guitar routine.
The unforgettable power of this production explodes in the cast’s performance of their air guitar licks, of which there are, happily, a lot. Sound Designer Kenny Neal has built into the show a knock-your-socks-off playlist of rock classics in one-minute cuts (see his playlist for the show below). Lighting Designer John D. Alexander has connected the many mini rock concerts with a nonstop light show. Costume Designer Sydney Moore has given a different exaggerated look to each character’s stage persona in each city—the outrageous wardrobe overflows. And whatever paces Choreographer Jessica Redish and Air Guitar Consultant Doug “The Thunder” Strook have put the cast through have resulted in a show full of thrilling air guitar performances. Some even are hilarious. Nina, for instance, mimics an aged “Ruth Slayer Ginsberg.” And Golden Thunder drops trou to flash his butt in stars and stripes underwear.
“One never understands airness,” says Golden Thunder to Nina. “One achieves airness.” And further, he says, the greatest thing about air guitar, what air guitar teaches, is this: “Everything we need to rock is already inside us.”
You may walk into Airness knowing nothing about the world of competitive air guitar. And that’s okay. Because you will leave more with it and much the wiser and most of all wildly entertained.
Running Time: Two hours 10 minutes, including one intermission.
Airness is a regional premiere co-production between Keegan Theatre and 1st Stage.
(This review was written about the November 12, 2019, performance during the run of Airness November 8 to 30, 2019, at the Keegan Theatre – 1742 Church Street, NW, in Washington DC.)