Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Well, exist it does, with qualifying regional competitions held in different parts of the country throughout the year, leading up to the big moment when one deserving air guitarist is named National Champion–and then heads off to Finland to represent the U S. of A in the International Competition. I have now learned that they exist, and also that they are stupendous fun, at least as depicted by playwright Chelsea Marcantel. I don't know what Marcantel's association with the air guitar universe might be–her bio offers no hint that she ever partook in the art form–but she clearly knows a great deal about it, and has crafted that knowledge into a play that is hilariously funny and also heartwarming.
Angela Timberman, an actor who excels at delivering comic performances, is the director of the piece, and ensures that the timing and interplay between characters lifts the plentiful humor written into the script up to a sublime level. Toss in a half dozen actors with great comedy chops and the physical stamina to pull of some outlandish routines on the air guitar, and you hit the bullseye. Straight out, it's the most fun I have had at the theater all year.
Which is not to say it's the best play, or most important new work, or made the deepest impression upon me, or led me to think about the world and its challenges in different ways. But it did open my eyes to a specific subculture of which I was totally unaware. Moreover, it had me laughing heartily for the better part of two hours, and that is no small thing when so much of my time (when not at the theater) is spent hearing and reading and thinking about things that are anything but laughing matters.
We quickly learn the fairly simple rules of air guitar, along with the criteria by which the performance is judged: technical ability, stage presence, and "airness." While the first two are pretty straightforward, a good part of the play is spent trying to articulate the ephemeral concept of "airness." It's one of those "you know it when you see it" things. At least that is the hope.
We also discover that any self-respecting air guitarist adopts a persona for performing, and also while in the company of other air guitarists. Thus, reigning champion David Cooper is known as "D. Vicious," while his top competitors are Shreddy Eddy, Golden Thunder, Facebender, and Cannibal Queen. One other staunch competitor emerges in the course of the play, which forms the basis of a narrative that ties together the scenes set at different regional competitions.
Since winning last year's Nationals, D. Vicious (Eric "Pogi" Sumangil) has become an arrogant ass, assuming that none of the others can touch him to take the title again this year. He also let the fact that he was tapped for an online soft drink commercial go to his head. Golden Thunder's (Michael Terrel Brown) routines play to his Black queer identity and a predilection for stripping down to his skivvies. Facebender (Daniel Petzold) is a middle-aged dude with a horribly depressing day job and a head of long hippie hair, complete with a headband a la Neil Young. Shreddy Eddy is a serious-minded young man, stuck in adolescence as indicated by his song of choice for his routine, "I Don't Want to Grow Up" by Tom Waits, as performed by The Ramones. Cannibal Queen (Shae Palic) shows up in black leather and a tough biker-girl persona.
Wandering into the mix is Nina (Julia Valen), a total newbie who, for reasons we eventually find out, has decided to take time off from her gig as an actual guitarist in a rock band to do the air-guitar thing. She starts off on the wrong foot with the others by casting aspersions on air guitar, assuming that, since she can play a real guitar, she is a shoo-in to succeed at the make-believe stuff. Eventually, she wins the group over and they offer tips, such as the importance of choosing the right song for her routine. When she tells them she plans on using Journey's "Don't Stop Believing," they freak out, telling her Journey is only for frat boys and step-moms.
The cast, one and all, are a joy. Daniel Petzold's "Facebender" has the opportunity to develop the most serious character when he lets his hair down and talks about his failings as a father to his daughter, and the overall bleakness of his life for which air guitar is a massive escape. As Shreddy Eddy, Neal Skoy–whose virtuosity doing physical comedy is always a treat–is soulfully earnest about air guitar as a thing of value, meaning, and beauty in and of itself. Then there is Julia Valen's Nina, who is surprised to find herself on a path to self-discovery, the only character who actually experiences change in the course of Airness. If the other performances are more one-note affairs, that is just fine because they absolutely hit the right note.
M.J. Leffler's scenic design for Airness is a set of bars and stools, half of a bar booth, an old overstuffed sofa, and some tables and chairs rolled on and off, with the locations being established by Kathy Maxwell's projections that give hints as to the city in which each scene takes place as the group travels from one qualifying regional event to another–the travel indicated by a racing image of passing over the frets of a long-neck guitar. Alex Clark's lighting brings atmosphere, especially to the tournament performances, while Ash M. Kaun's costumes are almost comedic interpretations of each character's nature, with an assist from Jess Rau's wigs.
I am not saying that after seeing Airness I am going to buy tickets and book Airbnbs to follow the Air Guitar Regional Circuit. Then again, I am not saying that I won't. It sure gave me a totally unexpected appreciation for the art, both for the skill and thought processes required of its practitioners and the manic joy of its performance. But really, rather than going to all those tournaments I am most likely to get another set of tickets for Airness. You can't have this kind of fun too often.
Airness runs through June 5, 2022, at Park Square Theatre, Proscenium Stage, 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $40.00 55.00; students and educators, $16.00; seniors (62+) $5.00 discount; military, $10.00 discount. Rush tickets, $20.00 one hour before each performance, subject to availability. For tickets and information, call 651-291-7005 or visit parksquaretheatre.org.
Playwright: Chelsea Marcantel; Director and Choreographer: Angela Timberman; Assistant Director/Choreographer: Dorian Brooke; Set Design: M.M. Leffler; Costume Design: Ash M. Kaun; Lighting Design: Alex Clark; Sound Design: Eric M.C. Gonzalez; Properties Design: Christopher Heilman; Wig Design: Jess Rau; Projection Design: Kathy Maxwell; Assistant Projection Designer: Leslie Ritenour; Intimacy Director: Alessandra Bongiardina; Stage Manager: Ashley Raper; Assistant Stage Manager: Jaya Robillard; Line Producers: Ellen Fenster, Kim Vasquez.
Cast: Berto Borroto (Hooded Figure), Michael Terrell Brown (Gabe "Golden Thunder" Partridge), Shae Palic (Astrid "Cannibal Queen" Anderson), Daniel Petzold (Mark "Facebender" Lender), Neal Skoy (Ed "Shreddy Eddy" Leary), Eric "Pogi" Sumangil (David "D Vicious" Cooper), Julia Valen (Nino O'Neal).