"Meet my co-chair," William Shatner observed from the stage of Auditorium Theatre Friday night, whereupon a seat on wheels was flung in the general direction of the man who once flew the Starship Enterprise. Ah, such a night for cutting-edge comedy. "My sister had an exorcism," Shatner observed a bit later on, "but she couldn't afford to pay for it, so they repossessed her." You'd think with material like that he'd have been here all week, but, alas, it was just Friday night.
In reality, Shatner's co-chair for the aptly titled solo show "Shatner's World: We Just Live in It" (on Broadway a few weeks ago and now a national tour of one-night stands) was the ever-genial 80-year-old himself. We saw images of Shatner doing Shakespeare in Stratford, Shatner on the bridge of the Enterprise, Shatner joshing with James Spader on "Boston Legal," Shatner delivering a graduation speech at McGill University (saying, "Don't be afraid to make an ass of yourself"), Shatner staring at horses. There was even (in a particularly surreal moment in a wholly bizarre show) a clip of Shatner playing his own death, or at least his most famous character's death, accompanied by some serious observations on how our hero will actually meet his maker, at which time some camera or other will perhaps be rolling.
Yet, as outrageously bad as some of this prattle surely was, it's impossible to feel mad at Shatner or even resist such an overt burnishing of his personal brand. This even though the ubertext of the night was, and I am paraphrasing here, "All of those people you saw me play had a little bit of me in them, but I'm actually made up of more than that." So there you go: There is more to Shatner than Captain Kirk. This, we already knew. Of that, the man has made sure.
Shatner at least had (still has) the looks, and, if you look beyond his bravado, the raw talent that makes his populist success in the showbiz lottery far less egregious than that of many other celebrities with Broadway vehicles of their own. And by shrewdly cultivating an image of self-parody just when his first star began to fade, he comes off as a jocular, honest, inoculated and constantly self-reinvented man who has earned his money and with whom one would surely enjoy spending some time. Since his arrival in Chicago pretty much coincided with convicted former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich heading to prison, I kept thinking all night how Shatner so easily manages to attract what Blagojevich so badly wanted (but could not get) from the public in his endless series of press conferences and personal appearances: affection, warmth and wry appreciation for an eccentric and an outsider who played the game but laughed at all the other fools. Blago did not come up during the show. But most of Shatner's life did — the war stories of theatrical matters gone awry, the odd dig at Leonard Nimoy.
The best clip of this clip-job of a show was an appearance Shatner made at a tribute to George Lucas. Our host set it up beautifully, explaining that the hosts of the event had said that the gag would be that Lucas made"Star Wars" and Shatner made"Star Trek," so all Shatner had to do was come out and people would laugh. "What if George Lucas doesn't laugh?" Shatner says he presciently asked, before agreeing to do it anyway. Would you expect otherwise from the Priceline Negotiator?
As the clip reveals, Lucas (along with such fellow royalty as Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford) does not laugh so much as stare at Shatner with bemused contempt. And with that, you instantly like a guy who has every right to his place in the sci-fi hall of fame but does not require any dignity to go with it, unlike the more portentous practitioners of the same art.
Therein — along with demonstrably unabated energy, a love of risk, a perpetual romantic attitude and a determination to tell his own brand of the truth — lies Shatner's endless appeal. As he modestly pointed out Friday, his voice echoing around the well-filled Auditorium Theatre, they still love him down at NASA, just as they still boldy go where no man has gone before.
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