“William Shatner at the Arlington? What for? Doing what?” asked a good friend over a drink before the show. Indeed, fair questions. Intentionally, this reviewer did no advance research on what the famous actor had in mind, or how the show is being received (on tour now). Presumably the only criteria for the audience was that you must like …William Shatner.
This performance was presented by UCSB Arts & Lectures. Entitled the Shatner’s World, one can deduce the usual Star Trek allusions would be evident, but walking into the theater there was no overt indication this was a Star Trek convention, aside from one guy dressed in a ‘50s Martian suit ordering popcorn. But, hey, that’s normal in downtown Santa Barbara.
By the near-packed crowd it was obvious that people are still willing to take a chance that movie and television icon William Shatner would deliver some form of his diverse and witty brand of entertaining that spans back decades.
A giant screen stage center constantly glowed into the deep universe and was framed by two classic writing desks with chairs, lamps, books and bronze horse statues. In front of the screen was a lone modern desk chair, the kind that rolls. When the lights dimmed the usual “no smoking, no filming” message emerged from loud speakers, only this time it was Shatner himself delivering his version including “Flashbulbs are prohibited as I may walk off the end of the stage, which is funny only once.”
Out comes the man looking spry dressed in sport coat with jeans. For the next 1:45 he energetically takes us on an often humorous and engaging ride across the span of his life, in loose chronologic order with a lot of side trips down the back streets of his, and our, lives.
It was really a vaudeville performance, entertainment for entertainments sake. Shatner was constantly in motion, keeping the audience engaged, and expertly using the rolling desk chair as a place to rest, a prop for a rant, a beautiful woman to dance with.
At times, he would move to the left or right desk and sit, while the galaxies on center screen would darken to video – famous performers of his youth, playing understudy to fellow Canadian actor Christopher Plummer, pictures of his favorite wife and favorite hobby, horses, and a friendly man-dance scene between he and James Spader from their Emmy winning drama/comedy Boston Legal.
Starting out, he talked mostly of growing up in Canada to conservative Jewish parents, being interested in acting and the influences and pratfalls of making it to Broadway. There was a time when he had to ad-lib his lines, stalling while trying to think of something else to say; “and now you know why…I…talk…like…this,” resulting in a burst of laughter from the insider audience to this allusion to Captain Kirk’s conversational style.
Shatner will of course always be branded first and foremost for his role as James Tiberius Kirk, captain of the USS Enterprise, from the ‘60s television show Star Trek. Ironically, the shortest lived (3 years) of the chain-spawning series of shows, it is still the standard by which all are compared. And, in some ways Shatner has had an on-again/off-again love affair with Captain Kirk, although much less curmudgeonly than Sean Connery and alter ego 007.
While not happy to be typecast as an actor and hounded by Trekkies, he has alternatively embraced science fiction writing and documentaries about the Trek empire, as well as deeply appreciating his association with NASA. After a heart-to-heart with Patrick Stewart (Capt. Picard from The Next Generation) today he says of the Kirk branding, “I’m happy with that, and I wouldn’t be here talking to you today if it didn’t happen.”
There were plenty of times when he made fun of himself, like the clip he showed of George Takei (who played Mr. Sulu on Star Trek and has publicly derided Shatner for decades) famously said “Bill, f!!k you, and I mean that,” at a Comedy Central Roast awhile back. There were also times when he destroyed a guy’s precious GTO, or he took his three daughters skiing at Mammoth, in a motor home harboring a fugitive rat.
Shatner’s not a stand up comic, so not all moments are gut-wrenching hilarious but they are delivered perfectly and always pleasant. His language is efficient, the timing perfect, and his mastery of delivering the spoken word is, dare I say, Shakespearean. As much as anything else it was entertaining watching a professional practice their craft so fluently, naturally and originally.
And a few serious moments emerged. He discussed his love of all things horses, including the ethics of horse breeding. When he found his second wife, drowned in their swimming pool, he paused, then pointed out, “Sorry to disappoint you but I’m real,” continuing, “Death is the final frontier. We should all work together. Life doesn’t have to end with death when there’s love.”
This one-man play reminds us of just how long William Shatner has been in our public eye, and through an incredible amount of entertainment mediums: stage, television, movies, directing, documentary, music (he’s actually recorded a few quite funny ‘spoken word’ albums), science fiction writing and stand up pitch man (priceline.com).
Indeed, the man seemingly never stops moving, never stops entertaining, never stops taking chances. This all drives home to the theme of Shatner’s World:
''Life is risk. It’s risky to say ‘yes.’ Think how much richer life is when you do say yes. So, say yes to life.''
Perhaps it’s important to not take things for granted, and to put it all into proper context: William Shatner turns 82 this March. Eighty-two. He’s the last person who cares to remind us or himself of that fact. So, here he is, on stage and still relevant, still entertaining, still enjoying life.
It’s cliché, but … Live long and prosper, Mr. Shatner, live long and prosper…..