Shatner: 'And you wonder why. I speak. Like this?'
William Shatner beamed to Milwaukee Sunday evening. While he didn't exactly set the Riverside Theater audience on "stunned," he impressed it with a heartfelt look at what might be his greatest talent: the management of his long and unconventional career.
Shatner's World: We Just Live in It opened on Broadway March 10. After a brief run there, the actor/director/author/spoken-word artist has been touring the country, offering remembrances of his professional life, illustrated with occasional film clips and photos.
He turns 81 on Thursday, but anyone who doubts the actor's vitality need only check his calendar. Since March 10, he's performed Shatner's World in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and Chicago.
The show's title aside, there was little of the mock-egoist star of Boston Legal and Priceline commercials. By now we're used to that persona -- Shatner portraying an excessively hammy version of himself.
Instead, Shatner recreated himself yet again for his one-man show. He's now our soft-spoken grandfather, sharing a few jokes and hard-won life lessons. He's added 20 minutes of material since the Broadway premiere, making it a two-hour performance without an intermission, impressive for any actor.
Star Trek was covered, of course. The program began with its theme, and the massive screen in front of which he performed displayed the image of a nebula when not used for clips or photos. But the 1960s science fiction series was only an incidental theme during the show.
The U.S.S. Enterprise captain's chair was suggested by the upscale office chair Shatner frequently retired to, but it was also a prop, a dancing partner and a horse. The screen was flanked by two wooden chairs, two library tables and lamps. We might as well have been in the performer's private study.
His story began with growing up as a Canadian Jew, discovering the thrill of acting at summer camp, and later growing enamored of burlesque comics in Montreal. From there he moved to radio drama, college plays, and then his first big break at the Stratford, Ontario, Shakespeare festival, which in turn took him to New York. He recalled how his 1959 Broadway play, The World of Suzie Wong, was a failure until he started to ad lib stentorian speeches.
"It was a hit!" he cried. "It went on. For two years! And you wonder why. I speak. Like this?"
While in New York he took part in early, live television drama, and then Hollywood came calling. He made some good films, some bad, and then Star Trek. Typecast afterward, he was reduced to living in a camper and doing dinner theater. In one of the show's most intriguing moments, Shatner admitted to being impoverished and embarrassed at the time, particularly by fan adulation he felt was richly ironic.
"I would hold my hands up at events," he told the audience, "and be derisive. Before you could be derisive."
Later on, Sir Patrick Stewart, the successor star on Star Trek: The Next Generation, provided Shatner with an epiphany: a vastly experienced Shakespearian actor, Stewart finally came to accept and even take pride in the fact that he will always be best remembered as a captain of the Enterprise.
During the original series, NASA courted Shatner's support, and the actor still prizes the ongoing relationship; he provided the final "wake-up" call to the crew of Discovery, the last space shuttle. Shatner noted, "NASA never lost their awe and wonder of Star Trek," though he had -- but now, thanks to Stewart, he said had found peace with his iconic role.
In an evening full of many comic moments, Shatner changed the tone and observed that "death is the final frontier." He pointedly charged the audience to take risks, as he has, continually.
Understudy as Henry V at Stratford and then go on without ever having rehearsed? Kill off Kirk in a movie? Return to television and spoof himself on Boston Legal, when every other series he had done cost him a marriage? Another spoken word recording? And then see it mounted as a 2007 ballet? And then do yet another album in 2011 with the help of Lyle Lovett, Peter Frampton and Sheryl Crow?
Many Emmys later, whatever one might think of his acting talents, that has to be the true genius of Shatner, reinventing himself again and again during his long career, for each next generation.
The clip he showed of his Star Trek speech from the episode "Return to Tomorrow" was intended to sum up Starfleet, but of course it sums up Shatner the actor, as well. As Capt. Kirk told his crew, "Risk . . . Risk is our business."
Shatner received standing ovations at both his entrance and exit.
From Milwaukee, Shatner's World moves on to cities including Dallas, Denver and St. Louis. The last scheduled production is April 19 in Detroit.