Playwright Luigi Pirandello’s celebrated and controversial “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” written and first performed in 1921, was a drama within a drama and chock full of existential angst emanating from six characters searching for their story, their raison d’etre.
Nearly a century later, playwright Chelsea Marcantel appears to have borrowed a page or two from Pirandello’s playbook for “Airness,” a more joyful, lighthearted variation on the theme of “Six Characters." The play focuses on six air guitarists — over-the-top performers pretending to play heavy-metal guitar while dancing —searching for their “airness,” or their joie de vivre.
What, you might ask, is the definition of “airness”? Well, as the battling air guitarists explain throughout B Street Theatre’s funny, thoughtful production, airness is as difficult to define as it is to attain. But you’ll know it when you achieve it, a message that transcends air guitar and urges everyone to seek out and embrace their own happiness.
“Shreddy, what was that thing you said about airness?” neophyte air guitarist Nina asks her mentor Shreddy Eddy late in the second act. “That air guitar comes from a time before you cared about looking cool?”
“Yeah,” Shreddy responds. “Like when you were a kid and you would just spaz out.”
According to U.S. Air Guitar, a real organization that sponsors real competitions that lead up to the Air Guitar World Championships in Finland, “airness” is a real term, one of three criteria used by judges to score contestants (the two others are technical merit and stage presence). Airness is “the extent to which a performance transcends the imitation of a real guitar and becomes an art form in and of itself.”
In “Airness,” as in the air guitar community, the guitarists take the competition seriously, but not themselves.
“The whole impetus of air guitar is world peace,” says the straight-faced Golden Thunder, whose own performance of Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell” is highlighted by him stripping down to British flag boxers, and then stripping again to reveal skimpy American flag briefs. Air guitar, Golden Thunder says, “is the truest art form. The only pure art form left.”
“Airness” tells the story of Nina, an accomplished — and arrogant — guitar player who enters her first air guitar competition with considerably more cockiness than airness. Thinking she has the advantage of being a real guitar player, she mocks her fellow competitors, only to fail miserably air-performing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin.’” (“It just doesn’t shred … . Journey is for step moms and frat boys,” Shreddy Eddy warned Nina beforehand.)
Nina has ulterior motives for entering the competition that later become clear — and yes, they involve a soured love affair with champion air guitarist David D’Vicious.
After the Journey debacle, she accepts her shortcomings as an air guitarist, takes on the affable Shreddy Eddy as her tutor, and joins Eddy and his group of comical air guitar carpetbaggers as they head off on the regional competition circuit at dingy bars from Staten Island, N.Y., to San Diego to Chicago to New York.
Director Dave Pierini, working with casting director Stephanie Klapper, has assembled a captivating cast of six air guitarists — and one enthusiastic announcer — to keep the audience enthralled through a series of competitions, juicy backstage rap sessions and occasional confrontations among the guitarists.
Pierini is arguably one of B Street’s most versatile and talented players, a veritable Swiss Army knife under klieg lights who can write, direct and act. He has an innate sense of comic timing and physicality, and appears to have encouraged all six guitarists/actors to develop their own onstage styles.
Four of the six actors — Peter Story (Shreddy Eddy), John Lamb (Facebender), Tara Sissom (Cannibal Queen) and Stephanie Altholz (Nina) — recently worked together in B Street’s hilarious production of “One Man, Two Guvnors.” Two actors making their B Street debuts in “Airness” — Sam Kebede (Golden Thunder) and Josh Bonzie (David D’Vicious) — mesh well with the B Street veterans.
Actress Taylor Fleer, a recent Sacramento State graduate also making her B Street mainstage debut, holds her own as the competition announcer, channeling the vibe and verve of popular boxing announcer Michael “Let’s get ready to rumble!” Buffer.
Most of the guitarists wear the outlandish costumes of their onstage personas throughout the play, and designer Sarah Carman clearly had fun creating the collection of delightfully exaggerated outfits, especially Golden Thunder’s Superman/strip ensemble, Facebender’s old wizard get-up and Cannibal Queen’s twisted dominatrix outfit.
“Airness” is a refreshing and satisfying quest to understand and achieve airness — that purest, untainted form of joy and happiness — and its message will appeal to air guitarists and non air guitarists alike. Years before Marcantel wrote her script, guitar god Jimi Hendrix seemed to be thinking along the same lines when he asked: “Have you ever been experienced? Not necessarily stoned, but beautiful ... .”
Mitchel Benson is The Bee’s theater critic and a freelance writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What: A comedy about competing air guitarists who take their contests seriously, but not themselves, as they pursue the ultimate in “airness.” Presented by B Street Theatre. Written by Chelsea Marcantel. Directed by Dave Pierini.
Where: Sofia Tsakopoulos Center for the Arts, 2700 Capitol Ave., Sacramento.
When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays; 2 and 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 5 and 9 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Sundays. Through June 10.
Cost: $27-$46, discounts available for students and seniors.
Information: 916-443-5300 or www.bstreettheatre.org
Running time: About two hours, including a 15-minute intermission.