Future Art

An Evening With William Shatner Asterisk tackles the human condition with a video actor

An Evening With William Shatner Asterisk tackles the human condition with a video actor

News_Houston Society for the Performing Arts_William Shatner_Shatner's World_March 2012
Photo by Joan Marcus

Two large stationary screens and one smaller screen mounted on a wheeled, human sized cart rest on the stage at the beginning of An Evening With William Shatner Asterisk at Fusebox Festival. A woman in an oversized suit sits quietly on a chair upstage. A large white square tapes off the stage. Static fills the screens and what sounds like a sped up heartbeat fills the room.

William Shatner’s name is in the title, but it’s Captain James T. Kirk who emerges from the static. Here is his handsome, noble face on the screen. It’s important that it’s Kirk instead of Shatner because Kirk is a trustworthy emissary, a character who represents a certain kind of integrity and passion.  It’s the Captain, on the deck of his ship, before Shatner went on his journey to irrelevance and back again. He tells us he is here from the future to talk to us about science and art.

 Underneath all of the layers of technology lies a very human frustration with the inarticulateness of language and the vagaries of defining the human existence. 

“Talk” isn’t quite right. Every single word Kirk says was isolated as a single video frame from the Star Trek series and then strung back together to form new sequences of audio/visual sentences. It’s not Captain Kirk talking to us smoothly from the screen, it’s a collection of images and sounds that have been put together to convey an idea.

He says, “It may be a bit confusing at first,” which sounds more like, “it MAY be CONfusing… AT first,” and the audience laughs because the video’s chopped up monologue does not resemble human speech rhythms in the slightest. It does not even sound like Shatner’s signature rhythmic strangeness. While the words are all there in the right order, they’re plucked from other pieces of dialogue and can be so jarring put back together that they cease to make much sense to the ear.

The creators must have realized this because the two large screens on either side provide helpful subtitles. At times the written words, the images and the audio can be too much to process all at once. Toward the end of the piece, the subtitles disappear and it’s almost a relief to just listen and watch without them.

The Fusebox website describes this creation as a puppet, but it might be more accurate to call it an oracle. A puppet implies that it’s being manipulated in the moment, but everything the video does was obviously constructed and assembled ahead of time. The one live actor adds a spontaneous physical layer to the performance by wheeling the video cart around the stage throughout the performance; the video itself, however, feels very static. Even when Video Kirk toys with the audience’s expectations, it’s a premeditated moment.

While ostensibly, Video Kirk is explaining art and science, the theme he comes back to again and again is binary categorization. In five sections, he attempts to lay out the difference between art and science, savage and civilized, expected and unexpected, and life and death. Since each is defined by the other, the explanations become convoluted, repetitive explorations of concepts that cease to make sense the more they’re dissected: “Art is art because not everybody understands art.”

The video pauses about halfway through and the actor begins to speak into a microphone. Any relief at hearing a live human voice is short-lived, however, because she’s speaking in Japanese and also gets subtitles. She talks about moving to Austin as a student and becoming interested in drag queen culture. She explored being a man dressed as a woman and as she says, “People wouldn’t talk to me until they knew what I was.” They needed the comfort of fitting her into a gender binary.

This piece tries to pick apart the notion of the self by creating a “self” out of assorted clips that philosophize that the self is actually a set of patterns. Put enough patterns together and we construe a personality. Indeed, by the end of the piece, Video Kirk seems to have a personality of his own even if he doesn’t feel remotely human.

In the grand finale, the section where Video Kirk is supposed to lay it all out for us, he instead pleads difficulty by saying that there are no words for what he needs to tell us. These binary concepts don’t exist in the future so how can he possibly explain what’s replaced them? This could feel like a cop-out until you consider that if you traveled five hundred years back in time, how would you explain twenty-first century philosophical ideas of the self to a culture that had no frame of reference for them?

The experience of watching An Evening With William Shatner Asterisk can be exhausting, but it’s also exhilarating to see the medium exemplify its own message so perfectly. Phil Soltanoff (director), Rob Ramirez (systems designer), and Joe Diebes (writer) have created a rich thought piece unafraid to tackle large philosophical questions while also gently mocking its own attempts to unravel them. Underneath all of the layers of technology lies a very human frustration with the inarticulateness of language and the vagaries of defining the human existence.

An Evening With William Shatner Asterisk has more three more performances on May 3rd, 4th, and 5th. Visit the Fusebox website for information and tickets.