Airness – Theatre Review: The Phoenix Theatre Company’s Hormel Theatre, Phoenix

Okay. So, raise your hand if you’ve ever heard a guitar riff by, say, Jimmy Page or Eric Clapton, and you’ve suddenly felt the urge to pull a rock ‘n roll face, bite your bottom lip, and play the air-guitar. I thought so. We’ve all done it. And if you said, no, then come on, be honest; you’re just kidding yourself.

There can’t be a teenager of the sixties or the seventies who has never done a dynamic Pete Townshend arm swirl when hearing the intro to Pinball Wizard when it gets to that note. It’s mandatory. And personally, when playing the acoustic opening to Led Zeppelin III’s Bron-Y-Aur Stomp, I’ve found that a nearby tennis racket actually enhances the joy of imaginary plucking, though technically speaking, in the world of air guitar, that’s cheating.

In the new sublimely funny comedy from Chelsea Marcantel, Airness, now playing at The Phoenix Theatre Company’s Hormel Theatre until March 31, the competitive world of the air guitar is fully explored. But make no mistake. This is not a parody or a satirical take on this undeniably curious form of entertainment. The subject by default is funny enough without the need to send it up. Despite the appearance of a bunch of rock ‘n roll/heavy metal wannabes playing pretend, Mercantel’s play of the men and women who participate in the competition are all quite real, and so is the contest.

If at this point you’re still confused as to what an air guitar is, pay attention; it might be something you’re good at. Air guitar is a form of performance where the participant pretends to play an electric guitar, an air guitar while miming and occasionally lip-synching to a sixty-second rock recording of his or her choice. Exaggerated movements help. It’s what you bring to the stage. It’s that certain something that belongs to you and only you that makes a champion, and that’s where the criteria of ‘airness’ comes in.

There are rules to the contest. There’s technical merit, where the movement of fingers, hands, and body corresponds to the recording. There’s stage presence, which is what it takes to stand out and entertain (anyone can do it in the privacy of the bedroom, but in front of live audience?) And then there’s airness, that certain quality where you just let rip and allow that inner rock ‘n roller to surface with feeling. It can’t be taught. It’s the Dr. Hyde of your Mr. Jekyll. Only you can bring it out. That’s airness.

In Airness, we learn all of this through Marcantel’s central character Nina (Michelle Chin). Of all the bars in all the world, Nina happens to walk into a certain Staten Island one on the day the air guitar qualifications are about to take place. As things progress, we’ll discover that Nina’s arrival was no accident; she has an ulterior motive to wanting to be there, but to tell more would be a plot spoiler – that’s for audiences to discover.

The thing about Nina is she’s a snot. She thinks that because she’s a guitar player in the real world, pretending to be one in competition should be a breeze. “How talented could anyone here be?” she asks. But after choosing the wrong song (Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing) and mistakenly thinking of herself as a small town girl living in a small town world while looking clueless on stage, she soon realizes there’s a lot more to this pretend stuff than she could ever have imagined. “Kill me, just somebody kill me,” she declares after a humiliating audition.

There are things Nina needs to do, First, drop the attitude and adopt a new one. Second, she needs a look, and third, she needs a name. The other competitors all have stage names. “We go by our personas,” explains Shreddy Eddy (Michael Kary), meaning that by day they may all be normal people with regular jobs and with ordinary, everyday names, but in the club during competition, they keep the fantasy alive. For the record, at the time of writing this review, the real-world current world air guitar champion is from Japan, a guy called Nanami Nagura known as ‘Seven Seas.’ The second is an American called Matt Burns with the air guitar name of ‘The Aristotle.’ In the play, Nina O’ Neal decides on ‘The Nina.’

Though there are many who participate throughout the season – the play goes from Staten Island, Boston, San Diego, Chicago, to New York, with Nina learning something new with each competitive venue – the play focuses on the camaraderie of four individuals; Golden Thunder (Victor Cervantes Jr.) Cannibal Queen (Alyssa Chiarello, yet to give a bad performance) Facebender (Marshall Glass) and the above-mentioned Shreddy Eddy in his red, spiky Johnny Rotten wig, plus one more, the current reigning air guitar champion who has become a little too big for his imaginary instrument, D Vicious (Caleb Reese, who in makeup and wig makes him a dead-ringer for Dee Snyder).

There’s a lot Nina will need to learn. Even though when on stage they’re competitive rivals, off stage everyone is only too willing to help The Nina reach that giddy height of achieving true airness, that special something. “Everything we need to rock is already in our hearts,” states Golden Boy.

Aaron Jackson’s scenic design of a bar/nightclub with a stage at its center is perfect. In Hormel’s black box styled theatre where the whole performing area can be stripped and redesigned from play to play in order to be anything it wants, void of the traditional proscenium arch, Jackson’s recreation of a club stretches wide from wall to wall, incorporating the bar, the stage, a meeting area, and a behind-the-scenes room in one long view. The details are fun to explore. Coupled with Chris Neumeyer’s sound and Jeff Brown’s lighting design, the marriage of all these elements make for a convincingly authentic looking club that by night comes alive while by day, looks like the empty, grungy and well-worn place that it really is.

Director Pasha Yamotahari has done admirable work, fleshing a continual sense of fun out of his cast while instilling touching moments of heartache that feel surprisingly all too real. The first-rate cast, several of whom are actually musicians in the real world, achieve a quality level of credibility to their outrageous air guitar personas in unexpected ways. When in a moment of despair, Facebender takes off his wig to reveal his true self, it’s as though a spell has been broken. You want him to put that wig back on as soon as possible and get us back to the pretend world. And when Cannibal Queen, a guitarist in her own right, tells The Nina why she pretends to do something that she can do in real life, you understand just how much being a competitive air guitarist gives meaning to their existence. It may be funny but it’s nothing to laugh at.

It’s no spoiler to say that The Nina will achieve her airness in the final act – she’s Rocky in the world of imaginary guitar licks; in what other direction did you think it would go? – though the final judgment reveal for the championship is something you’ll have to see for yourself. But when Michelle Chin’s The Nina finally hits the spotlight and puts her hands in the air like she just don’t care and achieves that special something that only she can deliver, it’ll take everything you have to stop your own inner rock god from feeling the urge to leap from your seat. You want to join her as part of her imaginary support band, maybe playing backup on imaginary bass. Or in my case, as I’m so well-rehearsed thanks to Led Zeppelin III, the tennis racket.

Airness continues at The Phoenix Theatre Company’s Hormel Theatre in Phoenix until March 31

Pictures Courtesy of Reg Madison Photography

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