Guitar solo fans may feel like they're cli-i-mbing a stair-air-way to heaven in Park Square Theatre's "Airness."
Many of the most memorable solos in rawk history are incorporated into the performances in "Airness." Its characters are trying to get to the national air guitar championships, using "Hotel California," "Crazy on You," "Don't Stop Believin'" and "Beat It" in their acts (this is probably a good place for trigger warnings about Michael Jackson music and very strong language). Other classics — including "Purple Rain" — pop up in interstitial moments.
There are a lot of those. Too many, in fact. The cast and crew scramble during set changes but, because "Airness" is composed of lots of brief scenes that take place in many cities where the preliminary competitions take place, it feels like we spend too much time watching couches being rolled back and forth.
That's a minor quibble in a show that's mostly good fun. Chelsea Marcantel's slight play doesn't have much on its mind other than entertaining us but it does a good job of it. Marcantel's seven characters adopt outsized personas, as in pro wrestling, and express different strengths in their pursuit of "airness" — like umami or looking into the face of God, an ineffable quality whose adherents know it when they see it.
Our heroine is "The Nina" O'Neal (Julia Valen), a newcomer to competition whose interest in achieving airosity is tied to prior relationships that the comedy gradually reveals. It's in Nina that Marcantel shows most vividly that air guitar competitions include not just fake strumming but also amusingly elaborate choreography (by director Angela Timberman and Dorian Brooke) and maybe a little air drumming, to boot.
"Airness" builds to a scene in which Nina finally demonstrates the title quality. The scene is supposed to convey what it means to be taken over by a song, and Valen delivers with a lithe, moving interpretation of a timeless classic.
Her grace, complemented by the enthusiasm of Michael Terrell Brown as Gabe "Golden Thunder" Partridge and the goofiness of Daniel Petzold as Mark "Facebender" Lender, is infectious. There is some light drama, having to do with friendships made and lost, but Timberman makes sure the focus of "Airness" stays on music's power to move us. Most of the characters operate in a couple of registers — wildly exaggerated when they're performing or discussing music, more natural in rare "off" moments — and that captures the excitement all of us feel when we grab onto a song that speaks directly to us.
It's so affecting that it wasn't until "Airness" was over that I realized I'd basically watched 105 minutes of mime. Ordinarily, I might resist that but, in this case, it shook me all night long.
Who: By Chelsea Marcantel. Directed by Angela Timberman.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thu.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends June 5.
Where: Park Square Theatre, 20 W. 7th Place, St. Paul.
Protocol: Masks and vaccinations (or negative COVID test within 72 hours) required.
Tickets: $40-$55, 651-291-7005 or parksquaretheatre.org.