Airness opened this week at Park Square Theatre in the heart of downtown St. Paul, it marked the return of live theatre to the venue after it’s winter show Marie and Rosetta was cancelled due to concerns over Covid-19. Before the show began last night, Executive Director, Mark Ferraro-Hauck spoke briefly. He talked about how gathering for live theatre is a way back from the isolation and disconnect we all experienced. Airness perfectly reflects that idea. It’s a show about finding your people and connecting through your art, and of course achieving “airness”. The story of a group of air guitar competitors and their journey to make it to Nationals, all competing for the Championship. Like a sports movie but with imaginary musical instruments it’s as much about the characters and their relationships as it is about the competition. The stellar lead cast of six create fully realized characters that we come to love in a mere 104 minutes on stage. I laughed, I cried (faithful readers know what a soft touch I am) at this play about finding the inner airness inside.
The story follows Nina O’Neal who is new to the world of competitive air guitar. She arrives at her first regional competition and meets a group of friends who travel across the country trying to secure a slot to the nationals and a chance to defeat last years champion “D Vicious”, not his real name. As the group explains to Nina when they are in the venue, they are known by their air guitar personas. There’s “Shreddy Eddy” who will agree to tutor Nina in the ways of the air guitar, in exchange for her buying his drinks for the rest of the qualifying circuit. There is “Golden Thunder” who’s performances focus on creating a unified political and social statement. “Facebender” is a throwback to the 1970’s which you get the feeling were very good to him. Finally, “Cannibal Queen” who is dating “D Vicious” and is a classically trained guitar player. She is trying to break the glass ceiling of the air guitar world. As Nina slowly transforms into “The Nina”, it becomes clear she has an ulterior motive for competing. As we wait to learn what is driving Nina, we learn about the members of this community what drives them and what air guitar means to them. They are competitors once they hit the stage, but before they do, they do everything they can to help each other succeed. They show Nina that her dark plans are unworthy of air guitar, that it’s about higher ideals and finding yourself, not beating others. Only through truly finding yourself and expressing it, can one attain true airness.
Look, I know how silly this all sounds, but it stops seeming silly somewhere midway through the show and you are half convinced that this may be the last pure artform. Chelsea Marcantel’s script is full of wit and wisdom as well has wonderful character details that help ground what seems like a ridiculous premise in a unique reality. As good as the script is, it’s the superb cast which bring these characters to life in a way that allows us to invest emotionally in characters with names like “facebender” and “Shreddy Eddy”. A cast this good it’s hard to pull out individual performances, part of the brilliance is the way in which they interact naturally and feel like a community on stage. The standout is Daniel Petzold as “Facebender”. Under a wig that should undercut every line, Petzold instead projects the characters soul and every line rings true. He gets a nice scene where he explains to Nina why he does air guitar, it’s a moment that elevates the script and the character. Petzolds comic timing is so spot on you almost forget to laugh you are in awe of it. Julia Valen as Nina finds the perfect notes to act as our surrogate in this world of competitive air guitar. Her journey from smirky eye roller to genuine convert mirrors our own. Neal Skoy as “Shreddy Eddy” projects sincerity and idealism in equal measure with a sappy charm that makes him a credible potential love interest for Nina. Michael Terrell Brown’s “Golden Thunder” is fabulously out there at home pontificating about the importance of having a social commentary in your 60 second air guitar performance as he is performing it. Shae Palic as “Cannibal Queen” is all attitude at the opening, we form an opinion about her character but learn as Nina does that first impressions can be misleading. Palic does a nice job of playing it so that each impression as well as the reversal work. Eric “Pogi” Sumangil plays “D Vicious” as less of a villian and more just a guy who’s ego has gotten the better of him. Sumangil does a nice job in the middle section of establishing a sympathy for his character that actually has you wondering for a minute or two if the the real villain could be Nina.
I really liked the Set Design by MJ Leffler and Projection Design by Kathy Maxwell. The video of rock band style video game graphics during transitions was an inspired choice. Costumes by Ash M. Kaun especially those for “Golden Thunder” and “The Nina’s” final qualifying performance were particularly well done. There were two small issues that kept Airness from achieving “airness” and they are related to the competition segments. Firstly, the Sound Design by Eric M. C. Gonzalez was fine in every respect except the air guitar performances themselves. The volume is too soft in the performances, the performance tracks need to hit us as a wall of sound, if they had been louder we would have been more engaged in those moments. The second issue is the Choreography by director Angela Timberman of the air guitaring itself. The performances felt unchoreographed, they seemed like the cast was winging it, these could have been “wow” moments but as such, it looked like your friends air guitaring in the basement. Nothing wowed the audience in the way it seemed to the characters in the play. That said, air guitar performances are a very small part of this production, it’s still a really good show, we just didn’t quite achieve that state of mind known as “airness”.
One final work of warning, this show is a lot of fun, and going with a group of friends would be a great night out. But, know your group, the show is filled with profanity a lot of “F” bombs are dropped and the “C” word, and I don’t mean cancer. I was not offended, but I was aware of it. Like I say, know your group. This isn’t one to take your young teenagers to if you have strong beliefs in the use of profanity or grandma if she’s one that constantly comments on why they have to say such things in movies these days. Airness runs through June 5th, for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://parksquaretheatre.
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