Latest production rocks at the Benchmark Theatre in Lakewood
According to the Urban Dictionary, “Airness” is the extent to which an air guitar performance transcends the medium and becomes a higher form of artistic expression.
Yes. Air guitar.
Remember? Music blaring. Head banging. Arms flailing. Body gyrating. Feet pounding. It is sheer in-the-moment motion, unadulterated mayhem and ultimately pure joy.
That is the feeling you’ll relive seeing Airness at the Benchmark Theatre in Lakewood. And the best part is that you’ll leave with that magical feeling intact. Not only because of the awesome clips of classic rock guitar licks liberally sprinkled throughout the production, but because of the witty, sharp and downright sentimental play written by Chelsea Marcantel.
Airness is ostensibly a play about a young guitar player’s introduction to the unique and intense world of competitive air guitar. But in reality, it’s a story about being authentic to your true self, letting go of your inhibitions and accepting others for who they are.
Neophyte air guitar player Nina O’Neal is not only our guide into the intricacies of the competition, but also to the oversized personalities and individual peccadillos of the tight-knit competitors who show her the ropes. By some standards (most, actually), they might be considered losers. But as Nina begins to understand what it takes to make a champion, we realize that they are anything but losers.
Photo: McLeod9 Creative
In national air guitar competitions contestants, pretend to play (or “shred”) imaginary guitars to 60-second tracks from classic rock ‘n’ roll. Their performances, which are intensely physical and widely choreographed, are more over-the-top than what you’ll see on any real rock stage.
Director Marc Stith has pulled together a top-notch cast at the Benchmark who are up to the challenging roles of the eccentric shredders. Together, along with a well-written script, they keep the contestants as rich, colorful characters and not two-dimensional stereotypes.
All of the action takes place in dingy bars where the competition is held. An elevated stage for the air guitar performances dominates the set, but the realistic, fully stocked bar, scattered rock posters and overall grunge bring a realistic feel to the set. (The only issue is that in the Benchmark Theatre set-up, the green room on stage-left can be difficult to view from some seats.)
The art of air guitar
When real-life band member Nina appears at a bar in Staten Island for an air-guitar qualification round, she finds the assumed personas and deep camaraderie between the veteran competitors amusing and somewhat baffling. After breezily ignoring their well-meaning advice, Nina soon learns that there is more to this art form than just playing pretend guitar.
Actor Erika Mori’s spot-on portrayal of Nina helps keep Airness from being just another saccharine and shallow rom-com. Her high energy, no-nonsense performance gives the role a realism that is the perfect counterpoint to the hyperbolic characters of her fellow competitors. The audience willingly joins her in her exasperation and outright amusement at the intensity and passion of Shreddy Eddy (John Hauser), Facebender (Damon Guerrasio), Golden Thunder (Rakeem Lawrence) and Cannibal Queen (Mackenzie Beyer).
Photo: McLeod9 Creative
As Nina travels around the U.S. to other qualifying regional competitions, she is taken under the wing of every-guy, wannabe rocker Eddy. Eddy’s theme song — “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” by the Ramones — perfectly fits his boyish persona as he carefully coaches The Nina on the technical aspects of the competition. Nina’s scholarly focus and Eddy’s effusive passion are the perfect interplay as they literally and figuratively roll their eyes at one another. Hauser’s skillful combination of doe-eyed boy-next-door and passionate artist makes Shreddy Eddy believable and appealing. You can’t help but root for him to win.
Six pillars of shred
Eddy shares with Nina that there are six “pillars” on which contestants are judged: artistic merit, originality, feeling, technical ability, stage presence, and the elusive quality of “airness.” And while Nina excels at understanding the technical parts, she struggles with the emotional aspects.
But we do see an emotional side of Nina in her aversion to the only other female in the pack, the Cannibal Queen. Beyer perfectly plays the acerbic, black-leather dressed Cannibal Queen as a brittle, take-no-prisoners type used to being “the only vagina in the room.”
Where Nina’s full emotions come into play is in her obsession with the arrogant D Vicious (Ryan Omar Stack). Bad-boy D Vicious is riding high as the reigning national air guitar champion and is basking in his notoriety from appearing in an online Sprite commercial. But his past with Nina eventually comes out and causes issues with the other shredders. Stack gives the audience an easy villain to hate, but his sharp performance combined with a well-crafted character make it more complex.
On the other end of the spectrum is fellow shredder Facebender, the man with a heart of gold who speaks in the language of the renaissance. His ’70s garb — including macramé belt, cross-over bag and requisite long blond wig — may be over the top, but Guerrasio’s open and vulnerable portrayal of him keeps him grounded.
Lawrence’s high-energy, hard-rocking take on the well-meaning and politically charged Golden Thunder rounds out the competitors. His philosophical take on the art of air guitar lays the groundwork for Nina’s eventual conversion to a true shredder as he states: “One never understands airness. One achieves airness.”
The scene-stealer award goes to Ryan Goold, who nailed it every time he was on stage or on voice-overs in his multiple roles as Announcer, Sprite Executive and Hood Figure.
It’s a good thing the Benchmark encourages audience participation, because it’d be nearly impossible not to clap, hum and sing during the show. That’s not to mention the constant chorus of hisses, whistles and shouts of encouragement in between.
From Led Zeppelin and AC/DC to the Ramones and Prince, in Airness you’ll find a song that transports you to your own performances of the past. Admit it. There is that one song that sends your fingers strumming and your shoulders swaying. But that’s usually as far as it goes because you’re an adult. And adults don’t air guitar.
Or do they?
And, yes, in case you were wondering, Air Guitar is a real competitive sport. And Denver is host to one of the regional championships. So if you’re wondering if you have it in you, check out USairguitar.com.
Or check out the playlist from Airness on Spotify.