Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The plot centers on Nina, a young woman who stumbles into the local air guitar competition on Staten Island and believes that she can easily master the sport and come out a champion since, unlike most of her competition, she knows how to play an actual guitar. Nina quickly learns from the other competitors, who are a close-knit group, that excelling at air guitar requires much more than just knowing how to imitate the movements of playing the instrument. Artistic merit, originality, feeling, technical ability, charisma, and "airness" form the six elements of the sport, with the mystical element of airness being the ability to find the artistry and depth in the sport and transcend it into its own art form. As the group of friends educates Nina in the art of air guitar, they also discover that Nina may have had ulterior motives in entering the contest.
Marcantel's play gives us a good understanding of the sport and shows us how, as in most competitions, the winners at the regional levels go on to nationals, which then sends its winner to compete in the international finals. Seeing a group of eccentric yet realistic characters who are devoted to something that some may find ridiculous may generate a new appreciation for the sport. Marcantel also creates a good sense of how these individuals form a community and, even though they compete against each other, are each other's biggest fans. However, while the characters are fairly realistic, the play seems overly long and padded in parts. There is a repetitive nature in each of the local competition scenes (which all have the exact same ending) and, while the air guitar sequences are fun, they are very similar. There is little character development and an ending that is predictable. And having almost all of the characters decked out in throwback fashions of loud, flamboyant, headbanger rockers from the past makes them almost silly caricatures.
Fortunately, the cast does a good job in creating natural individuals with Michelle Chin very good as Nina, the woman who comes in with a chip on her shoulder but realizes not only the importance of listening to her new friends but also that a group of individuals is able to come together to collectively combat the demons in one's past. Michael Kary is equally as good as Ed "Shreddy Eddy" Leary. The scenes he shares with Chin where he is tutoring Nina on the sport and they are becoming friends are tender and effective in their realism.
In smaller parts, Alyssa Chiarello is perfect as the powerful woman who is tired of fighting to be considered an equal in this sport that is dominated by men. Marshall Glass and Victor Cervantes Jr. both do well as, respectively, the bold and humorous Gabe "Golden Thunder" Partridge and Mark "Facebender" Lender, who speaks in soft-spoken sonnets while in his stage persona but is a nervous wreck backstage due to the fact that his daughter, whom he rarely sees, is coming to watch him perform. Caleb Reese is good as the antagonist of the piece, David "D. Vicious" Cooper, the current reigning champion. I only wish his part wasn't so small, which is another shortcoming to the piece.
Director Pasha Yamotahari does well at keeping the humor of the piece fresh while also ensuring there is some depth to the characters and drama in the play. Aaron Jackson's set works well to depict the onstage and backstage locations. Maci Hosler's costumes and Terre Steed's wig and makeup designs deliver lavish results.
Airness is a charming and fairly entertaining play with warm portrayals and some life lessons we all can be reminded of. However, while I don't believe there's ever been a play about air guitar competitions, the underlying theme and plot aren't very original, which detracts from the overall impact of the play.
Airness, through March 31, 2019, at The Phoenix Theatre Company, 100 E. McDowell Road, Phoenix AZ. Tickets can be purchased at phoenixtheatre.com or by calling 602-254-2151
Written by Chelsea Marcantel
Cast: (in alphabetical order)
*Members of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors & stage managers in the U.S.