Theater Review: A life of ‘Play’ lived and told well on stage and off
BY PAUL WILLISTEIN
It’s called “The Last Play,” but it’s much more.
“The Last Play” tells the story of Bill George, Co-Founder-Ensemble Emeritus of Touchstone Theatre, and the story of his daughter, Theater Artist Anisa George. They have collaborated on some 10 theatrical works over the course of some 40 years at Touchstone Theatre and beyond.
Do the math: Anisa was a baby when she made her first stage appearance. Similarly, her daughter, Ruya, was a baby when she made her stage debut.
That story and dozens more fascinating anecdotes from a life on stage and off are told by Anisa and her father Bill, who created and perform the 90-minute show (without intermission) at Touchstone Theatre, Bethlehem. The opening night March 24 performance was seen for this review. There was also a performance March 26. Production Stage Manager is Chris Egging.
“The Last Play” is a rare glimpse into a family of theater and a theatrical family that includes Bridget George, who with her husband Bill George, guided Touchstone Theatre for many years. The story is told, often from the point of view of Anisa, who brings the memory play to life as raconteur, provocateur and prompt, at one point inviting her mother Bridget from the audience to the stage where she interviews her as the two sit across from each other at a table.
The stories unfold in ways that are, by turns, amusing, sometimes laugh-out-loud hilarious, thought-provoking, bittersweet, and often downright amazing. The inspiration and influence of John Pearson, whose spirit still hovers over Touchstone, is beautifully, reverently and importantly told in the progress from a mid-1970s’ fledgling street theater working out of a garage to its home circa 1987 in a converted Southside Bethlehem 19th-century firehouse.
Bill George and Anisa George cavort, dance, sing, tumble, jump and stand on their heads. Each performer is graceful in movement and resonant in voice. Bill even puts on the white face. Or rather Anisa paints the mask on Bill’s face in one of the play’s many scenes of emotional intimacy, honesty and authenticity.
They laugh at each other and at themselves as they recall the perils of a “traveling mime theater.” The stage has scenery, props and items that reference the plays Bill and Anisa have performed. There’s a door, a tree stump, marionettes, and a two-dimensional outline of a locomotive, in which Bill and Anisa trundle on stage to open the show. Archival photographs of previous shows are projected.
The play has an intriguing through-line of “lasts” in words projected on a screen above the stage, which are read voluntarily by audience members. The brilliant device places “The Last Play” in the pantheon of last things.
“The Last Play” is a remarkable and astounding piece of theater in a theater where remarkable and astounding theater is the benchmark. This is fearless theater in a theater known for fearless work.
What struck me after seeing “The Last Play” is how much theatergoers, the Lehigh Valley and the theater world writ large are in debt to Touchstone Theatre. If you are unaware, or require proof, check out the Touchstone website for a partial list of the troupe’s extraordinary, groundbreaking and landmark works:
The interplay, pun intended, between mother and daughter, and father and daughter, is raw, emotional, celebratory and cleansing in ”The Last Play,” not only as I presume it must be for Bill, Anisa and Bridget, but for the audience, as well. It’s as if the family is opening up portals, time-traveling back and forth, from past to present.
If you have the opportunity to see “The Last Play,” the gift given may be to open up your own deep connection to family, friends and chosen field of endeavor. “The Last Play” offers trees to climb, doors to open, plays to be written.
Here’s hoping “The Last Play” can be videotaped or digitized for wider audiences to experience. My sense is that “The Last Play” is a first step. A documentary film, perhaps directed by Anisa George, on the history of Touchstone Theatre, would be a valuable addition to the history of the American stage.
“The Last Play,” 8 p.m. March 31; 2 p.m. April 2, Touchstone Theatre, 321 E. Fourth St., Bethlehem. 484-767-2456; http://www.touchstone.org/