When I first heard the new Geva Theatre show — “Airness” — was centered around the circuit competition of air guitar, I was slightly perplexed, and mildly interested, but mostly ambivalent.
What could a show about air guitar have to offer, other than some great physical comedy linked by a loose plot line? Within minutes of the show’s beginning, however, all those doubts melted away. I was immediately transfixed by the enthusiasm, passion, and how the cast of six made the stage their own during the show’s opening number. My eyes couldn’t decide where to land. Should I focus on the costumes the characters wore — stiff vinyl and elaborately designed leather — tinted by brightly colored spotlights? What about the facial expressions tossed back and forth as competitors traded roasts? As the show went on, I couldn’t help but be thoroughly and completely pulled into what I thought was just a superficial premise.
The show follows a (slightly) motley crew of air guitar local legends — Shreddy Eddy, Facebender, and Golden Thunder — as they do their utmost to teach, coach, and inspire confidence in Nina, a newcomer to the world of air guitar. As Nina struggles to learn the six pillars of air guitar — artistic merit, originality, feeling, technical ability, charisma, and “airness,” for which the show is named — we learn more and more about not only her past, but that of all the performers. What originally seemed like a fun, lighthearted piece quickly takes on much higher stakes. It’s impossible to not root for every single character to win, because every single story is so compelling, and every character deserves that happy ending (well, except for one, of whom you’ll have to find out for yourself).
The production design on this show was impeccable. The set design consisted of moving platforms papered over like old guitar cases, with thousands of stickers, including one from every city the group performs in, lit up to identify the cast in that location. The back rooms of dive bars across the country are homely in decoration, filled with lockers, old couches, mismatched chairs and tables, and the same lovable group as they grow more connected with every show. Nina transforms from an introverted girl off the street to a full-on rock goddess through some incredible costume design, which allows her to finally shine in a way that she’s never been able to before — and I’m not just saying that because of the sequins.
In the lobby during intermission, I made my way to the giant TV screen, where Geva provides a short slideshow with background details to fill the audience in on whatever the current production is about (when I saw “La Cage aux Folles,” it explained the history of drag performance. During “The Niceties,” it referenced the BLM movement and some protests and scandals at colleges across the US). Given that I knew less than nothing about air guitar, I thought it might provide some valuable insight. I learned that air guitar has a lot of similarities to WWE — the elaborate costumes, the storylines, the rabid fans who defend their idols to the death. Skateboarding was also used as a parallel, in the way that the community encourages anyone and everyone to join and tries to help even their own competitors do their best work, because if you’re not competing against people who are at their best, then what’s the point?
Full of dramatic twists (seriously, the one at the end of Act One made my jaw physically drop) and heartfelt conversations, “Airness” takes us out of the world we’re currently struggling to make our way through and drops us into a niche most of us have never experienced before, where you can get away from the worries of the pandemic and school and life and just let the show, in all its glory, transform you for a few hours. The quality of airness is something even the performers struggle to explain or point out. It’s something you feel, something that transcends simple definition. While I don’t know if what I felt sitting in that theater was airness exactly, I can relate to having seen something with such an untouchable quality that it’s hard to describe, but you know, immediately and with certainty, that it was something special.