Theater review: William Shatner proves he's a great storyteller
For William Shatner, "the urge to be an all-around human entertainment franchise is a continuing mission."
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William Shatner is at peace with being the once and forever Capt. James T. Kirk of "Star Trek." More than at peace -- he's having a grand time reliving the glory days and taking audiences along for the ride.
In his one-stop solo show at the Benedum Center Thursday, he showed a video clip of how his recorded message over the original "Star Trek" theme was used during space shuttle Discovery's final mission last year. Friday, he pulled out of plans to be on hand today when the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise, is retired -- perhaps another tidbit to be worked into "Shatner's World: We Just Live in It."
For Mr. Shatner, 80, the urge to be an all-around human entertainment franchise is a continuing mission. He admits he's a man who can't say "No," and aren't we all the more entertained because of it?
On Thursday, he made his entrance talking about laughter and showed a clip of a menacing George Takei ("Star Trek's" Mr. Sulu) cussing him at the actor's Comedy Central roast, then bounced to stories about strippers and vaudevillians, his Montreal roots and his Jewish heritage, stalking back and forth across the stage and barking out punch lines.
At various times, Mr. Shatner seemed to be on the verge of collapse, red in the face and breathless, like "Boston Legal's" Denny Crane when his "mad cow" condition took hold. But then he would slow the pace, sitting back as a video clip did the talking. In this way, anecdotes built one upon the other in a manic, nonlinear arc. The star of the show, a singular presence against a backdrop covered in stars, used but one prop -- a chair that gave Eastwooding a run for its money -- but nothing more was needed on a night that was all about the art of storytelling.
Engaging with fans has not always been high on Mr. Shatner's to-do list. Captain Kirk's alter ego famously shunned adoration for a time. In his show, he says his embrace of Trekkers was a gift from Patrick Stewart, seen on video stating that if, despite a glorious career in theater, he's known only as Captain Picard of "Star Trek: The Next Generation, he's "OK with that."
Peeks into Shatner's World include a look at Bad Billy, who as a teen would steal a neighbor's motorcycle to ride the streets of Montreal at night; the Shakespearean daredevil who went onstage cold as Christopher Plummer's understudy in "Henry V"; and the horseman whose passion was inflamed when he played the title role in the 1968 film "Alexander the Great."
Stories jump from his lack of drive as a student to his pursuit of acting, saying "Yes" to any and all roles. His accounts are poignant when speaking as the divorced father of three young girls, of his grief at his father's death and the drowning death of his third wife, and then finding love anew with Elizabeth, his wife of 13 years.
A favorite story, told with great gusto, has to do with how Mr. Shatner got his staccato delivery.
In 1958, he was cast in the Broadway-bound "The World of Suzie Wong," opposite newcomer Frances Nuyen. Even with legendary producer David Merrick and director Joshua Logan in charge, critics savaged the previews -- rightfully, according to Mr. Shatner. But a huge presale won the day, and off to New York they went. Along the way, Ms. Nuyen fell hard for Marlon Brando and wanted to be only with him. She would see her director and simply stop talking in the middle of scenes, leaving Mr. Shatner to fill long gaps of silence. He began talking fast and frenzied and at some point in the play's two-year run, managed to drop up to 15 minutes from the show.
"Is it any wonder I talk like this?" he asked, his voice at a fever pitch.
Mr. Shatner presented himself as a lover of love, something that he explained as coming in all shapes and sizes, such as an encounter with Koko, the gorilla who communicates through sign language. Some stories tended to drag, such as the one about redneck Randy and his precious car. Much more to the point, his love for his father, a clothing manufacturer who died in 1968, was made evident by showing how Joseph Shatner taught his son to fold a jacket.
William Shatner also is a confessed lover of words, a storyteller who thrives in the spotlight. At its most engaging, his one-man show reveals something more about the man we thought we knew and leaves us with good feelings about the places we occupy in Shatner's world.
First Published December 1, 2012 12:00 am