Air guitar is ridiculous. Drunken nerds who can’t play actual music, pretending to be rock stars, jumping all over a tiny stage in the back of some grimy bar? No thanks.
And air guitar as a form of serious competition, with corporate sponsors and international championships? Extremely ridiculous.
But finding the sublime in the ridiculous is what truly good art does, and that’s what “Airness,” a new play by Chelsea Marcantel, brings to Actors Theatre of Louisville as part of the 2017 Humana Festival of New American Plays.
Marcantel, along with director Meredith McDonough and a talented acting company, takes the surface ridiculousness of air guitar and embraces it, amplifies it, and then reveals the yearning, magic, and — yes — artistry beneath the veneer.
It’s not unlike Kristoffer Diaz’s “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” which received a beloved production at Actors Theatre in 2012: Diaz’s play is set in the world of championship wrestling, another theatrical form that’s easy to dismiss, but which takes on complex issues of race, ethnicity, and class, along with the unitards and power bombs.
“Airness” follows the journey of Nina (Marinda Anderson), a newbie to the world of air guitar, as she falls in with a friendly crew of regulars, all trying to win a spot at the national championships. We soon learn about Nina’s true motivation for getting into the sport (is it a sport?) but she serves as the audience’s surrogate, as we learn along with her about the rules and conventions of this particular subculture.
Following the fine tradition of the underdog sports movie, Nina has her setbacks and her triumphs along her journey. Although all the competitors are friendly with each other, tension comes from the ascent of D Vicious (Brian Quijada, in eyeliner and a leopard suit), who has “sold out” after his championship win the year before. Once we’ve become educated in the standards of air guitar, we can fully appreciate Vicious’s technically brilliant but soulless performance, expertly played by Quijada.
The play doesn’t shy away from addressing issues of gender: there’s only one other female contestant, the Cannibal Queen (Angelina Impellizzeri), who stomps into a room cheerfully flashing her middle finger to her friends as a greeting. Nina learns, as a new competitor, that she might be able to win with a sexy baby-doll act, but it won’t get her much respect.
It also would have been possible to make this an all-white show — certainly my preconception of air guitar was that it’s a pursuit for white guys in their 20s — but the diverse cast opens up the story and reminds us the desire to melt faces belongs to us all.
Special mention must be given to Matt Burns, who acts as the announcer for the various competitions, then astonishes the crowd after the curtain call with a face-melting performance of his own: he’s the actual 2016 World Air Guitar Champion. After being immersed in this world, it’s a thrill to see the real thing — even if it’s all pretend.
Written by Chelsea Marcantel
Directed by Meredith McDonough
Humana Festival performances run through April 9. More information here.