This morning I googled “air guitar competitions near Louisville.” And during my run, I listened to heavy metal and air guitared down Eastern Parkway. Right now, I’m listening to the face melting-est mix I could find on Spotify, and Motörhead’s “Ace of Spades” is blaring from my — admittedly small — speakers.
Such is the effect of Actors Theatre’s Humana Festival play “Airness.”
“Airness” follows Nina O’Neal as she tries to find success in the world of competitive air guitar. This is hands down the most fun you will have at the theatre this year. The world of the play is filled with huge characters and, yes, lots of air guitar performances.
But what makes the hour-and-40-minute runtime fly by are the heartfelt performances from the characters and Chelsea Marcantel’s very human and hilarious script. Marcantel gives us plenty of air guitar, but she knows how and when to use it and back-burners the competition in many places to focus on the relationships between the characters.
There’s Nina (Marinda Anderson) in the center of the action, and a quartet of competition regulars who are chasing glory as they attempt to win in a regional contest in order to qualify for nationals.
There’s Ed “Shreddy Eddy” Leary (Nate Miller), Gabe “Golden Thunder” Partridge (Marc Pierre), Mark “Facebender” Lender (Lucas Papaelias), and Astrid “Cannibal Queen” Anderson (Angelina Impellizzeri).
Rounding out the cast is David “D Viscious” Cooper (Brian Quijada), last year’s national champ.
Anderson infuses Nina with a great combination of doe-eyed wonder and arrogant disdain. There’s a part of her that can’t quite believe people take this stuff seriously. Of course, in addition to being the lead, she’s also our viewpoint charter. Her disbelief is our disbelief, as is her predictable yet satisfying journey toward respecting the art.
She has hidden motives and a depth revealed later in the play, and she’s just as effective in the moments.
The remaining cast members all get some moments to shine, both in the air guitar performances and in a string of revelatory instances when they momentarily let their personas slip. You’ll no doubt walk away with your own favorite, but Miller’s Shreddy Eddy — a slightly out-of-shape everyman — mixes a false bravado with a beating heart that yearns for some greater and truer than our world allows.
Pierre’s “Golden Thunder” tries to find a melding of his analytic and artistic sides, fusing them into his performances. Papaelias’ “Facebender” is the most farcical character, speaking in Thor-ish pseudo Norse. His higher level of goofyness serves to further heighten the impact of the few moments he gets real.
Impellizzeri’s “Cannibal Queen” frequently plays antagonist to Nina’s hero, a move that slyly highlights the way women can sometimes be each other’s worst enemies in a male-dominated environment. Quijada makes “D Viscious” despicable enough that he’s a suitable villain, but he also is afforded a few moments to make us root for him. Which, of course, makes our anger at him that much fiercer.
To call this play a “crowd pleaser” is a drastic understatement, but there were moments I felt like I was watching an extended pitch for a big-budget Holllywood comedy, albeit an uncommonly well-written one. Other moments felt filmic in a way that was just a tad jarring.
Director Meredith McDonough stages all the antics with a steady hand and seamlessly integrates live versions of Youtube videos with the over-the-top guitar antics, and helps the quieter moments feel sincere.
Past the flash and the glam, Marcantel’s script speaks to a broader human need to have a peak experience, seek self-actualization outside of the societally mandated norms and, above all, engage in joyful creativity I believe everyone craves but forgets sometime around middle school and puberty.
While air guitar is perhaps the most active possible focus for this play, Marcantel could just as easily have been writing about LARPing, “Dungeons and Dragons,” Cosplay or any of the growing number of pastimes and hobbies that allow people step outside their life for a moment and find their own greatness.
The show also deserves a big rock ‘n’ roll “hell yeah” for the technicians. The dingy bar set will make you crave a shot of cheap whiskey and a crappy beer chaser, and the legit huge rack of rock-show lights that were squeezed into the Victor Jory were kind of amazing.
In addition to the artistic merits of the work, every single person on stage seemed to be having an unadulterated blast in the show, including the stage hangs who air guitar through several scene changes because, of course, every scene change was served up with a healthy dose of air guitar from the actors. That kind of joy is infectious.
Also, if there is a 10-15-year-old kid in your life, take them to this play and they will love you forever, although there is some fairly strong language.
You should catch the play during its premiere, but I suspect this isn’t the last we’ll hear from “Airness.” Whether it’s on the big screen or in the no doubt thousands of community theater productions, I’m sure few people will be able to withstand the unfettered rock awesomeness of this play.
And I bet I’m not the only audience member who’ll go home dreaming of the possibility of finding his own air guitar glory.
“Airness” continues at Actors Theatre through April 8. For tickets and times, visit Actors’ website.
There is one last cast member, a barely onstage announcer who is a nerdy looking guy who only pops up in a couple of moments to announce winners of various competitions. But as the action of the show ends, it is revealed that this guy, Matt Burns, is the actual 2016 Air Guitar World Champion, and he grandly takes the stage to perform.
I don’t know this guy’s backstory or what his everyday life is like, but he was a god on the Victor Jory stage. While the air guitar performances of the other actors were wonderful, Burns took the stage and showed us what it takes to be the best, and it was amazing.