Three men stand onstage in a dive bar, playing air guitar. A woman in a black leather jacket sits on a stool at a table pointing to them.
From left: Destin Lorde Teamer, Evan Cullinan, Neil Stratman, and Julia Rowley in Airness at Citadel Theatre Credit: North Shore Camera Club

Airness, now playing at the Citadel Theatre, delivers a rocking good time, laughs, and a rock classic earworm to follow you home. Chelsea Marcantel’s play follows the journey of Nina (an earnest Julia Rowley) an outsider who dives headfirst into the world of competitive air guitar. Nina initially judges her fellow competitors as cringeworthy but over time discovers that the secondhand embarrassment she feels is actually a reflection of her own insecurities. 

Through 5/21: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM; also Wed 5/3-5/17 1 PM; understudy performance Wed 5/17 7:30 PM; Citadel Theatre, 300 S. Waukegan Rd., Lake Forest, 847-735-8554, ext. 1,, $40-$45

The chemistry of this really outstanding ensemble is the best part of the production, each character bringing their own quirky charm to the spotlight. An ebullient and eminently watchable Evan Cullinan anchors the circle of friends as the alt-rocker Shreddy Eddy, an encyclopedic font of rock knowledge. There’s also a cool and charismatic Sierra White as the technically proficient black-leather-clad rebel Cannibal Queen; a funny and tenderhearted Neil Stratman as Facebender, the folk rock peacenik; the hilariously sincere Destin Lorde Teamer as Golden Thunder, a Black-inspired Ziggy Stardust guru; a deliciously smarmy Will Leonard as D Vicious, the glammy-rock sellout; and a versatile Katherine Abel playing a fun assortment of judges and small-town barkeeps. Though overall the play feels long, during the second half, things pick up, and it’s extremely enjoyable to watch everyone relish in the hijinks together.

Sometimes the text and Joe Lehman’s direction conflict—the character portrayals read a bit too “fresh-faced theater kid” even though the script seems to suggest a crew of true outsider “burnouts” with bottom-of-the-barrel survival gigs and estranged children. The structure of the show hinges on the big moments when each character takes their turn, succeeding or failing to play air guitar in front of the judges. Some of these moments are cleanly choreographed and work well to elicit big laughs or an emotional punch, and the actors give their all, executing dramatic knee slides and tricks. Other moments feel too improvised and could benefit from either more precise choreo or an artistically metaphorical take on the moment, which would help inject some much-needed energy into the pace. 

Eric Luchen’s scenic design perfectly captures the grimy simplicity of a dive bar. Marcantel’s story is unique, heartwarming, and barely passes the Bechdel test. It deftly sidesteps infinitely more interesting storylines such as Nina’s problematic stalker behavior, and the positionality of Black participants in the predominantly white world of rock in favor of a fun and predictable story about friendship and achieving “Airness”—or losing yourself in the music for just a little bit. So, if you’re looking for a little escapism and just want to turn off your brain and rock out, this is the show for you.