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- Courtesy of Lindsay Raymondjack Photography
- Dara Pohl Feldman in 'Airness'
If it's risky to care too much about something easy to mock, it can also be the best way to make friends when you finally find your clan. In Airness, Chelsea Marcantel's popular 2017 play, air guitar enthusiasts compete to become national champion, supporting each other all the way. Only a misfit can love imaginary guitar, but when six of them get together, united by head banging, a sparkling comedy emerges.
The Vermont Stage production gives all due attention to the music that inspires air-thrashing displays of rock majesty, but the play is about a little community that takes in a newcomer, supports a struggler and resolves a love triangle. Sharp humor lets archetypal characters distinguish themselves with wit instead of depth.
The big theme is being true to yourself, and Marcantel sharpens this tired trope with outsize personalities who've shed the loser label by finding a commitment to musical exuberance and each other.
Competitive air guitar started in the late 1970s, and since 1996 a world champion has been crowned in Finland. In the U.S., a circuit of qualifying rounds sends competitors to bars around the country. An air guitar routine is set to a 60-second snippet of a song, designed to display pure emotion.
Airness begins in a Staten Island bar and hops across the country as our characters strive to reach the finals and inch forward in quest of human connections. The show features rock of many genres, but it offers more than nostalgia. It's the playful but heartfelt story of finding the elation that great musicians experience. Experiencing the spark of "airness" can give life purpose.
Nina (Dara Pohl Feldman) is the outsider crashing the party. She's an actual guitarist, certain that miming musicianship will be a snap. But she lacks a stage persona and misses the point of performing to reveal a song's essence until the established competitors kindly teach her.
Shreddy Eddie (Stephen Shore) becomes her mentor and not-so-secret admirer, while sweetly philosophical Golden Thunder (Kingsley Nwaogu) and vulnerable hippie throwback Facebender (Jon van Luling) encourage her.
A past-present love triangle emerges, involving Nina, last year's champion and all-around bad boy D Vicious (Quinn Post Rol), and the steely, intense Cannibal Queen (Grace Experience). An MC (Andrew Cassel) hammily hosts each competition.
Everyone wants to be loved, and all of them have had reason to doubt they ever would be. But put Joe Satriani's slick licks over a stomping bass drum in "Crowd Chant," and everyone has a reason to hope again.
Air guitar is a secret pleasure, born behind closed doors when the power of music compels physical exuberance. Admit it — you, too, have channeled music with a grimace and some busy fretwork with your empty hands. This play relies on that impulse surviving in an audience ready to exult in rock music animated by performers gripped with joy.
Audience members can sit at club-style tables and bring their own nonalcoholic drinks or buy Switchback brews on Saturdays. Conventional seating is open to those seeking a less immersive dive bar experience. The actors glow with energy, and toe-tapping is hard to resist. Once Joan Jett and Quiet Riot get your head bobbing, it's impossible not to root for the characters channeling them.
Costume designer Sarah Sophia Lidz contributes the very tools of the performances. Facebender wails with emotion, and his hippie patchwork includes scarves at his sleeves that droop with his sorrows. Golden Thunder wears an outfit that shines at peak glam rock brightness and tops it with a cape James Brown would have been proud to swirl.
Cannibal Queen's leather crop top and lace cutout pants radiate the character's hard-won strength, onstage and off. For Shreddy Eddie, Lidz layers musical history itself in a Sex Pistols T-shirt, Kurt Cobain-esque flannel shirt with a Jimi Hendrix homage on the back, and folkie rebel boots.
D Vicious has raided Keith Richards' closet down to the skull ring and sports some crotch bling to seal the rock god deal. Nina's outfits are bold thrift store mashups, forging coolness from the uncool by wacky juxtaposition. Onstage, she's a punk ballerina; offstage, she's a punk web developer. Somehow fishnet stockings suit both lives.
Director Laura Roald has catalyzed engaging camaraderie from the cast. The actors all have impressive comic timing and the vibrance to keep the sentimental edges of the script fresh while portraying earnest souls.
Air guitar is more dance than music, and choreographer Sue Bailey makes each performance distinct. From the slinky turns of Guns N' Roses to the punk power of Billy Idol, Bailey helps familiar songs surprise by showing performers transformed by the music and throwing in big, celebratory moves.
The set design, by Chuck Padula, puts us within the brick walls of an unpretentious bar. It's too stripped-down to have a soul, and the wrong backdrop for characters yearning to gather, but it conveys life on the road. An elevated stage framed with a lighting grid gives performers three levels to shred, windmill and drop to the floor in ecstasy.
Projections designed by Jess Wilson are beamed as underwhelming backdrops for the air guitar numbers and as prosaic bar décor to signal each new location of the competitions. Lighting designer Dan Gallagher mimics big rock act effects.
As the show opens, Golden Thunder asserts that the whole point of air guitar is world peace. The play just about proves that thesis: In an art form with no commercial potential, happiness is the end product. Anyone with winter blues to shake off will find plenty of laughs in the dialogue — and downright delight in watching these characters trying to impress a set of judges grading them on nothing more than their ability to be moved by music.