nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 3, 2007
New Amsterdames is a fun, high-spirited, gently pointed look at Manhattan Island's wonderfully diverse denizens, and how they have to keep working together to keep this extraordinary place we call New York City (but once called New Amsterdam) afloat.
Written by Ellen K. Anderson, the play is set in the very near future, on the eve of the quadracentennial of the discovery of the Hudson River (which will happen in 2009). NY-1 TV personality Sweetie Chin, a meteorologist who thinks she wants to be a feature reporter, is covering the sudden arrival of a beaver in Manhattan, an island they've been practically extinct from for about two centuries. Before the play is over, zillions of beavers will appear in the rivers and estuaries surrounding Manhattan island, and they'll help save it from catastrophe.
Why beavers, you ask? The answer lies in the historical flashback sections of New Amsterdames, which take place in the 1650s when Lower Manhattan was a fledgling Dutch colony under the governance of peg-legged Peter Stuyvesant. New York was already the most diverse city in the Western Hemisphere, and this tiny spot of land was shared by Native Americans (aka Indians), Africans (many of them slaves, but some—like the character Dot Angola, who is based on a real person—free landowners), Dutch, Brits, Jews, and an assortment of Europeans. Then as now, tolerance and respect were the keys to survival; this is the main lesson that New Amsterdames humorously but firmly reminds us of.
And, I almost forgot the beavers: there were hordes of them in and around Manhattan back in the 17th century, co-existing tenuously with the onslaught of humans who were trapping them in record numbers and selling their pelts in Europe for a lot of money.
But it is Anderson's delightful conceit that at least some of these beavers could talk and read—even, in one case, anthropomorphize into a tall beautiful female pooka. This beaver, Kitchi Amik, has the deed to Manhattan (stolen from Peter Minuit, who, as you probably recall, "purchased" the island from the Lenape tribe for about $24). The main plot of the flashbacks in New Amsterdames concerns the attempts of, well, just about everybody to get hold of that deed—a passel of characters, many of them based on real people, that includes Peter Stuyvesant's wife, a greedy Dutch female merchant, the aforementioned Dot Angola, and the woman who invented doughnuts. And several beavers.
It gives nothing important away to assure you that none of the aforementioned humans finally get hold of the deed. Anderson entrusts the ultimate ownership of Manhattan to the furry four-legged characters, and more generally to Mother Nature, I suppose. A sweet message of this sweet play is that humans may think they own the earth but they're really just borrowing it, which is another reason to bear in mind that we need to take really good care of it.
The production features a few original songs, all kinds of twisty plot turns, the eventual collision of the 2009 characters with the 1650-something characters, and several actors—plus one dog—portraying beavers. Predictably, the dog, a very cute and personable Welsh corgi named Chekhov, winds up stealing the show every time he is brought on stage. The humans in the cast, unfortunately somewhat uneven in terms of their performances, include the very versatile Nathaniel P. Claridad, who plays one of the beavers delightfully along with some other characters. The pacing of Heather Ondersma's direction could use some speeding up, and not all of the design elements seem completely effective. But this is an enormously ambitious project for an indie company like Flying Fig Productions, and their energy and enthusiasm in this mounting make up for a lot of the not-quite-successful elements, and nicely showcase Anderson's timely and resonant observations.