The opening announcements to “Airness” — which runs through Feb. 6 at Geva Theatre Center welcome audiences not to a play, but to “festivities,” which is a great description of the rock-show energy achieved during the performance’s most joyful moments.
I walked into the theater knowing nothing about air guitar. I didn’t even realize air guitar competitions are a real-world phenomenon that air on ESPN2 until I read in the program that Matt Burns, who plays the side role of Announcer, is a two-time World Air Guitar champion who also consulted for the production. Apparently, it’s a thing.
Fortunately for my amateur self, the play — written by Chelsea Marcantel — assumes the audience has minimal background in this world and, over the course of two hours, builds a case for why air guitar should be considered a legitimate art form.
The main character Nina, played by Brittany Anikka Liu, is conveniently also new to air guitar, showing up smug to her first competition because she plays “real” guitar. A proxy for the audience, she needs everything explained to her, including the rules of the competition and why people would want to pretend to play a guitar for 60 seconds in front of an audience in the first place.
As Nina learns the criteria of a good air performance — which includes heart, technique, charisma, and the ineffable “Airness” (you know it when you see it) — so does the audience, and the moments of flailing stage choreography start to make sense.
Not having seen air guitar competitions before, I can’t say how these performances would stack up against the actual world championships. Within the context of the play, though, they’re certainly entertaining. Skip Greer’s direction and an incredibly endearing cast always bring the focus to the people behind the moves, and every fake strum or slide across the stage — choreographed by Gabriella Anne Pérez — feels authentic and character-driven.
The sweet, idealistic Golden Thunder, played with a goofy charm by Rasell Holt, plays air guitar to make the world a better place. Cannibal Queen, the classically trained guitarist played by Anna Crivelli, exudes a punk persona that says, “I’m mad and don’t care what you think.”
But the play centers on “The Nina” as she journeys from skeptical newcomer, competing for all the wrong reasons, to air guitar superstar. For all the novelty of its air guitar context, the play follows fairly predictable plot beats that mostly satisfy, especially if you’re a fan of formulaic dance movies.
The most disappointing trope was the cliché of women pitting themselves against each other. I cringed watching Nina and Cannibal Queen exchange misogynistic slurs and belittle other women for being too sexual. To her credit, Crivelli does her best as Cannibal Queen to redirect the animosity toward the patriarchy, conveying a repressed bitterness of years of being sexually objectified onstage as she encourages Nina not to “give it all away” in a deeply resonant moment.
The tiring animosity between the women stands out particularly because the three main male air guitarists are refreshing antidotes to toxic masculinity. They’re supportive of each other, kind, eager to build community, and willing to be vulnerable. They care more about their group chat than winning the championship. It’s lovely to watch a comedy centered on friendship, and frustrating that this doesn’t extend more to the women.
The play was first presented in 2017, written years before COVID, but it’s impossible to go to the theater and not think about the pandemic as you show proof of vaccination and look around at masked faces in the audience. Some lines in the play are accidentally prescient, like Golden Thunder’s complaint that the world “refuses to be healed,” or an Act II monologue about the fear of no one caring about your death. For the most part though, the play is as goofy and irreverent as the subject matter it celebrates. For a few joyful moments, I felt like it could still be 2017.
The show walks the audience through more than just the mechanics and aesthetics of air guitar competitions. Every expositional and emotional beat is fairly explicit, even heavy-handed. This is not a piece where you need to lean in to catch subtleties or subtext. It’s one where, for better or worse, you sit back and forget the world while friends banter and glitter explodes.
“Airness” runs through Sunday, Feb. 6, at Geva Theatre Center’s Wilson Stage, 75 Woodbury Blvd., Rochester. $25-$64. Proof of COVID-19 vaccination or negative test required; masks required. For performance dates/times and tickets, go to gevatheatre.org.
Katherine Varga is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to Daniel J. Kushner, CITY’s arts editor, at [email protected]