For the final show of its current theatrical season, Airness at Citadel Theatre is a play about the art of air guitar and the people who are most passionate about it.
Prior to seeing Airness at Citadel, I had no clue that air guitar was anything more than something you do in the car when jamming out with friends to a particularly cool song. In truth, I have discovered, that air guitar is an entire subculture – not just in the U.S., but internationally.
Referred to by its enthusiasts not just as a hobby, but as a sport, air guitar has inspired organized competitions on the world stage. The annual Air Guitar World Championships have been going on since 1996. The U.S. Air Guitar Championships include a series of regional competitions, followed by a national championship competition. World Championships are then held in Finland.
READY TO ROCK
Written by Chelsea Marcantel and winner of the 2018 M. Elizabeth Osborn New Play Award, the title Airness refers to the magical state of Zen when one is totally lost in the art of air guitar and transcends to another level of bliss and technical excellence. The play is directed by Joe Lehman with panache and flair.
The show centers on a group of enthusiasts who travel the country to compete in regional air guitar events in hopes of earning an invitation to the championships in Finland. Like professional wrestlers, each air guitar artist has their own persona complete with costumes and silly titles. The personas for the ensemble in Airness include Neil Stratman as Facebender, Sierra White as Cannibal Queen, Julia Rowley as The Nina, Will Leonard as D Vicious, Evan Cullinan as Shreddy Eddy, and Destin Lorde Teamer as Golden Thunder. Katherine Abel plays the role of the announcer.
The play, though, is not just a bunch of people pretending to play guitar. The play explores why people embrace this pastime with such fever. Why do they dress up? What do the songs they pick mean to them? Why do they do it at all?
Ultimately Airness is a show about finding your true self, being a good friend to others, and finding ways to positively motivate yourself instead of getting trapped in an unfulfilling cycle of negative motivation like doing things for revenge. When you do things for the right reasons, the results can be life changing.
The central character of Nina is played by Julia Rowley. Nina is new to air guitar, and it is through the other enthusiasts showing her the ropes that the audience comes to understand the art form. Rowley goes through a complete emotional evolution over the course of the play, giving us a very well-rounded performance.
There are two actors in particular who really transcend and give performances that are better than the material they have been given. Neil Stratman is completely endearing as a spiritually enlightened competitor named Facebender. The Facebender title is not indicative at all of the freely flowing love that he emotes at all times. It is a special performance. You just want to give him a hug. He would fit right in on an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
The other masterful performance is by Sierra White, who ignores that she is not the stereotypical choice for the role of bad ass beauty Cannibal Queen and gives us an interpretation that is better than what’s on the page. White is a very strong actress. You can’t help respecting, admiring, and being completely enthralled by her.
Will Leonard is very much like a professional wrestler in his ability to be both charming and loath-worthy at the same time. It suits his character of air guitar champion D Vicious well. His ego from his recent success has turned him into something unappealing, yet there are glimmers of the good person he was before getting wrapped up in fame. He’s an excellent actor.
Shreddy Eddy is the unkempt guy who probably still plays video games and Pokémon, and for whom air guitar is his connection to the real world. Played by Evan Cullinan, Eddy is the true headbanger in the bunch and isn’t afraid to break into heavy metal screams that would make Vince Neil proud or to work his long hair while jamming on stage.
Golden Thunder is a bit of a philosopher. He uses air guitar as a platform for sending messages about important world affairs. He is played with enthusiasm by Destin Lorde Teamer.
Although not one of the competitors, Katherine Abel is a big key to the story, serving as the announcer in each city the group travels to for qualifying competitions on their quest to make it to nationals, and then then world championship. She does an excellent job.
The music selections for Airness are an absolute delight. The audience clearly has a good time jamming out to the pre-show and intermission soundtracks, as well as during the air guitar moments themselves during the play.
The set designed by Eric Luchen and constructed by master carpenter Jason Clark is very impressive. It looks just like the interior of a real seedy bar. The only problem with this is that the play takes place in a number of different bars across the country and the set is very clearly one specific bar. It causes some confusion. While the set is incredible, perhaps the play would work better if it had a utility set that allowed for the suggestion of different locations.
Costume design by Cindy Moon is good. Lighting design is by Joe Klamerus, sound design is by Jonesy Jones, and properties design is by Isabella Noe. The production team also includes air guitar consultant Gina “Rocky Rhoads” Czarkowski, choreographer Jake Ganzer, stage manager Jessica Greenhoe, production managers Ellen and Scott Phelps, scenic change artist Anna Petersen, and run crew Alex Trinh.
Airness is not the greatest script ever, but it definitely has its moments. The production playing at Citadel Theatre in Lake Forest, IL through May 21st features several excellent performances and some killer music to rock out to.
Airness plays Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 PM and Sundays at 3 PM. There are also select Wednesday matinees on May 3rd, 10th, and 17th. There will be an understudy performance on Wednesday, May 10th at 7:30 PM.
Citadel Theatre is located in the West Campus of the Lake Forest School District building at 300 S. Waukegan Road. For tickets visit www.citadeltheatre.org or call (847) 735-8554 ext. 1.
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