THE BASICS: AIRNESS, a 2017 play set to rock music by Chelsea Marcantel presented by Chautauqua Theater Company, directed by Joshua Kahan Brody, runs through Sunday, July 29 at various times at the air-conditioned Bratton Theater, Chautauqua Institution (716-357-6437). chq.org/chautauqua-theater-company. Runtime: about two hours with one intermission.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: From the playwright’s website: “When Nina enters her first air guitar competition, she thinks winning will be easy. But as she befriends a group of charismatic nerds all committed to becoming the next champion, she discovers that there’s more to this art form than playing pretend; it’s about finding yourself in your favorite songs and performing with raw joy. Will Nina be able to let go and set herself free onstage? Following her mission to shred or be shredded, AIRNESS is an exuberant reminder that everything we need to rock is already inside us. A comedy about competition, completion, and finding the airness inside yourself. Oh, and Nancy Wilson.” – chelseamarcantel.com/airness
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Billed as “A Workshop Production” this is a fully produced theater piece, but it reserves the right to take chances and make changes along the way, in the spirit of a workshop. And a workshop is completely in the spirit of “Air Guitar” (playing an imaginary guitar to recorded music), which, while competitive for the 60 seconds that you’re “on,” is otherwise a wonderfully collaborative and supportive world.
How supportive? Well, the play will show you, but there is a note in the program guide: “An extra special thanks to the US Air Guitar Championships for use of their name and logo, and for lending us their reigning champ to grace our stage and teach us how to jam. YOU GUYS ROCK!” Indeed, the very lean and lithe Matt Burns gamely takes on various minor roles, including stage crew, and then at the end does a demo of the “airness” which won him multiple regional championships, national championships, and World Air Guitar championships. That alone is worth the price of admission.
Still, any dramatic work must have some drama, so it’s not all holding hands and singing “Kumbaya.” Each character comes to Air Guitar with a backstory and some of those are pretty devastating. In a way, AIRNESS is very similar to the musical A CHORUS LINE with people who, while competing, are also more alike than different, and, as in A CHORUS LINE, some are more wounded than others. If it helps you calibrate, AIRNESS is also like SCHOOL OF ROCK, in that it’s a very exuberant celebration of Rock’n’Roll as a way out of a personal bad situation.
If you’re still not sure about this “air guitar” business, posted outside the theater and re-printed in the program are the rules of the “US Air Guitar Championships” which are explained on stage but, in summary, are that each performance can last only 60 seconds, the instrument must be a completely invisible guitar (all mime, no props), for Round 1 the competitor chooses the music, for Round 2 the judges pick, and the scores are based on Technical merit, Stage presence, and “Airness” – defined as “the extent to which a performance transcends the imitation of a real guitar and becomes an art form in and of itself.”
If any of this sounds confusing, it’s all explained through a simple plot device of a “newbie,” named Nina, who is adopted by a small group who instruct her in the art of Air Guitar, so as she learns, we learn. Each of the group has adopted a “persona” (think stage name) including “Shreddy Eddy,” “Golden Thunder,” “Facebender,” “Cannibal Queen” (played by Octavia Chavez-Richmond up from Albuquerque, NM, with some pretty impressive dance moves) and, within the show, last year’s champ, “D Vicious,” also energetically played by Jake Lozano of San Antonio, TX. In the middle of the play Nina has a meltdown, is estranged from her “tribe” of fellow air guitarists but is ultimately reunited with them for a big showy finish.
It’s clear to me that the audience at Chautauqua is primarily Baby Boomers (born 1946 to 1964) but it’s the generation just before us that invented Rock’n’Roll.
An editorial comment/note to my fellow Baby Boomers: Looking around, it’s clear to me that the audience at Chautauqua is primarily Baby Boomers (born 1946 to 1964) but it’s the generation just before us that invented Rock’n’Roll. We didn’t. They did. The so-called “Million Dollar Quartet” – Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash – along with Buddy Holly and many others, including Bob Dylan, were all born in the mid-1930s. Bill Haley and Chuck Berry were also part of that so-called “Silent Generation” as they both were born around 1925. In fact, the Beatles, each born in the early 1940s, cannot be counted as Baby Boomers. So, while we Boomers didn’t actually invent Rock, we were, with our huge numbers, the first and the largest consumers of Rock. Boomers were the first generation to grow up surrounded by rock and whatever we’ve become, from cellist Yo-Yo Ma to the Met Opera’s Renee Fleming, it’s never left us. So, while we might have come to Chautauqua to discuss world politics, domestic politics, global warming, religion, or important literature, let’s give ourselves a break. All work and no play make Jack a dull boy. Go to see AIRNESS and get back to one of your first loves, to discover that indescribable quality, that “airness,” which each of us has buried deep inside.
Oh, and if you’ve forgotten who Nancy Wilson was, she, as guitarist, with her sister Ann on lead vocals, along with guitarist Roger Fisher, bassist Steve Fossen, guitarist/keyboard player Howard Leese and drummer Michael DeRosier formed Heart, the first female-fronted hard rock band, with such hits as “Magic Man,” “Crazy on You,” “Heartless” and “Barracuda” heard here at Heart’s 2013 Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame Induction.
Fun fact: The playwright, Chelsea Marcantel (who also wrote LITTLE HOUSES previously seen at Chautauqua) lists her “Special Skills: stalking celebrity chefs, making killer playlists, taking artsy photos of her dog, defending the Oxford comma, and overestimating her own proficiency with yoga.”
Photos courtesy Chautauqua Theater Company
UP NEXT: With the men off fighting WWII, the ladies of an amateur theater troupe press on to present Shakespeare’s HENRY IV and HENRY V in the “backstage comedy” INTO THE BREECHES! which runs August 11 to August 17. And don’t forget the new play workshops including UNTITLED RUSSIA PLAY (7/30-8/1), then JUMP (8/2-4), and then THE AMISH PROJECT (8/19-21), a fictional investigation of the real-life Nickel Mines school shooting, a one-woman show which “portrays two communities shattered by a mass shooting and the journey to healing.”
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!