It’s tempting to say that William Shatner surprised his diehard fans at the Buell Theatre on Tuesday as part of “Shatner’s World: We Just Live In It,” a one-man show that debuted on Broadway and is now touring the country.
Yes, the erstswhile Captain Kirk and Priceline.com pitchman enjoyed a few moments of genuine transgression — making a relatively edgy terrorist joke, cursing like a sailor, screaming and lifting a solid-metal roller-chair over his head. But it was mostly what we expected from this loquacious and famously nutty Emmy-winning actor and pop culture icon.
The lasting delights came in the quieter, more nuanced moments where he showed his humanity while talking about mortality, his family and, yes, horses.
To be sure, Shatner is more than just an aging punchline and corny spoken-word “musician.” The 80-year-old’s acting career extends far back from the “Star Trek” franchise to films, Broadway, live TV and even radio dramas. It was clear we were in for a long night (two hours, to be exact, only a sliver of which was occupied by video clips) when Shatner immediately went into great detail about his early days, from summer camp plays to sharing the stage with Christopher Plummer in Canadian Shakespeare productions.
Against a tasteful backdrop — a starfield curtain, a projection screen (usually filled with another cosmic scene or photos and video clips), and minimal stage dressing that included a couple of tables, chairs and books — Shatner prowled the stage like a lopsided cat, fire in his eyes and belly, the words coming fast and furious. Even at 80 years old (and, we might add, a mile above sea level) his energy never seemed to flag.
The show was part stand-up, part monologue, part memoir. Shatner employed an adjustable office chair throughout the show as, variously, prop, foil, set dressing and even motorcycle. He sometimes tripped over his words, but that’s hardly a sin when it was so infrequent and coming from an overall enthusiastic performance. And yes, if you were there to hear about “Star Trek” and see him contort into some hilarious positions, you were rewarded.
Really, anyone worried about a phoned-in performance would have been greatly relieved. And it was a lightning storm compared to the playful but rushed tone of John Waters’ RMCAD show a couple weeks back. Sure, Shatner’s a born performer with decades of experience, but anything less than a tour-de-force would have negated the ticket price and venue.
It was too much of a good thing at times, as Shatner spent dozens of minutes talking about the horses he breeds, raises and shows, or the various semi-famous people he has worked with over the years.
But there’s something reassuring about an old war horse like him riding to the front of the stage, snarling and laughing, raising his hands to the heavens and daring to bathe himself in equal amounts of self-aggrandizement and earnest sentimentality. The show worked splendidly, both as a potentially risky entertainment venture and summation of a Hollywood long-timer’s career.
Say what you want about Shatner, his roles, the choices he has made — the man is deeply committed to making people pay attention to him. And anyone at the Buell Theatre on Tuesday was a little better off for it.
John Wenzel is an A&E reporter and digital media editor for The Denver Post and the author of “Mock Stars: Indie Comedy and the Dangerously Funny” (Speck Press/Fulcrum). Follow him @johntwenzel and @beardsandgum.