Regional Reviews: Wisconsin, SE
AirnessForward Theater Company
Also see John's review of Hadestown
Ed "Shreddy Eddy" Leary (Josh Krause, with the hat) is a serious observer of the air-guitar scene, in which Very Serious adults compete to put on a 60-second performance of imaginary guitar-playing to famous tunes, either selected by themselves or chosen at the last minute by the judges. Later in the play he serves as mentor to Nina "The Nina" O'Neal (Nadja Simmons), a beginner whose story this play mostly follows. The other members of the group, who gather in the first scene at a regional contest on Staten Island, are Gabe "Golden Thunder" Partridge (James Carrington) in a flashy gold outfit; Mark "Facebender" Lender (Marcus Truschinski), an effete-seeming fake-Englishman in a wig; David "D Vicious" Cooper (Joe Picchetti), the previous national winner, who actually got a gig in a Sprite commercial on the internet (but lost it through not following direction); and Astrid "Cannibal Queen" Anderson (Ashley Oviedo), married to Facebender but carrying on with D Vicious. The Nina and Cannibal Queen are actual guitar players on the side, but their experience is only the starting point for their stage personas as air-guitarists.
And don't forget the Announcer (Jess Schuknecht), who, in different personas, introduces all the acts at the different regional venues.
The six competitors aim to achieve the six pillars of air guitar, namely artistic merit, originality, feeling, technical ability, charisma and airness. They discuss the art with the seriousness of teenage boys discussing video games or young poker players rehashing hands they coulda, woulda, and shoulda won. Mostly they support each other in their mutual quest to win the nationals and go on to international stardom as air-guitarists, though D Vicious gets a stuck-up attitude and temporarily stops hanging with his fellow aspirants. The Nina says something snotty about her fellows that gets them to ostracize her, until she begs forgiveness. As a sign of being readmitted to the fold, she's allowed to tune their air guitars, a moment of true tenderness and acceptance. Throughout the tour of the regionals, she's so burned by her experience as a novice that she doesn't go on stage, instead absorbing wisdom from her peers, especially Shreddy Eddy.
So it goes, through regionals from Staten Island to San Diego, Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles, finally stopping in New York for the nationals. The Nina finally goes on stage (after a stunning costume change), and the battle is set for dominance among the six wannabes.
Director Molly Rhode keeps the play moving through pacing and movement. It turns out that there are a lot of levels to explore, between the bar (table, barstools, and couch) on the lowest level and a stage above. She says, "This play honors an amazing sub-culture of extraordinary humans that set aside personal time to engage in a personal activity that brings them unbridled joy," an example to us all. Costumes (Shannon Heibler) range from effective to brilliant, in the cases of Golden Thunder, Cannibal Queen, and The Nina. The actors have solid grasps on their characters, from insecure and not-too-nice D Vicious to vulnerable and inexperienced Nina. The multilevel set (Neil Mills) offers all a place to prance and fantasize. The lights (Greg Hoffmann), including movable LEDs on a truss over the "stage" area, keeps the performance alive with brightness and color (a lot more elaborate than you're likely to expect in the kind of venue frequented by air-guitarists!).
Forward Theater Company's Airness runs through February 12, 2023, at the Playhouse Theater, Overture Center, 201 State St., Madison WI. For tickets and information, call 608-258-4141, email email@example.com, or visit forwardtheater.com.
Dave Alcorn: Video Editor
Joe Cerqua: Composer And Sound Designer