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New Amsterdames

Theatre Review by Cindy Pierre

Arlene Chico-Lugo as De Beaver Twee, Lori Gardner as Anna Joralemon, Andrea Caban as Sukalan, Abigail Ramsay as Dot Angola and Ian Christiansen as De Beaver Een
Photo by Kila Packett.

Two weeks after Thanksgiving, the harvest celebration that originated in the 17th century with the English settlers arriving in Virginia via the James River, a similar event that transpired during the same era is examined in Ellen K. Anderson's New Amsterdames. Instead of English pilgrims, the James River and turkey, Anderson brings us Dutch pilgrims, the Hudson river, and the beaver. And more beaver. And more beaver. As New York's state mascot and a former major export (for the pelt) for the Dutch, the beaver has great prominence in New Amsterdames, represented by five characters (including one welsh corgi, Chekhov) in beaver tails and masks, and representing the driving force of the premise and plot development. Unfortunately, though full of whimsy and fun, the beaver theme is relentless and overrides any attempt at a dramatized, partially-based on history lesson about the acquisition of Manhattan. And the feeling of being at an adult-oriented, over-sized puppet show doesn't help either.

Scott Boyd's simple stage design takes us back to the barest and most practical elements, consisting of a large tree stump that is prime for the stomping of the characters' wooden clogs. Almost every character dons one, demonstrating yet another element that is done excessively in this production. Even the columns upholding the basement-level space are cluttered with clogs, bludgeoning us with Dutch ways and Dutch customs. Luckily, the clogs do no deter from Alisha Engle and Mark D. Spain's wonderfully authentic and inspired costume and mask design. The title New Amsterdames is the junction by which what are supposed to be the two dominant themes meet: New Amsterdam, the former title of New York City, and dames, for the "diversity of the women ... that made up the Dutch colony." Although there are quite a few female characters, their exploits and influence are hardly at the forefront of the production. Instead, there is a preponderance of historical figures such as Anna Joralemon (Lori Gardner), the doughnut inventor that is said to piggyback her invention off of olykoeks, the Dutch settlers' "oily cakes", English sea explorer and navigator Henry Hudson (Ian Christiansen), African landowner Dorothy Angola (Abigail Ramsay) and Judith Bayard Stuyvesant (Michaela Goldhaber), wife to Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch Director-General of the colony of New Netherlands and a major figure in early New York's history to fill up the 90-minute running time. In fact, Stuyvesant is so popular that although his character does not make an actual appearance, there are several characters masquerading as him.

If a narrative thread is to be ascertained, it is that everyone, from man to creature alike, is on the quest to own the deed to Manhattan. After it passes from the hands of the Lenape (expressed here as a daft native man and a native youth) and into the hands of Peter Minuit for goods worth $24, it goes from hand to greedy hand. Among the desirous are Margriet Hardenbroeck (impressive Jeannie Dalton), a shipping mogul, Beavers Twee (Arlene Chico-Lugo),Een (Ian Christiansen) and Knickerbocker (hilarious and physically supple Nathaniel P. Claridad), the fictional head of the first socially prominent family in New York,

Although the ensemble cast titillates and the story of "Old York" is recreated in an imaginative way, the over-exxageration of anything profound diminishes its impact. Nothing is understated here, from the various ways in which the beaver trade is manifested to the propensity to feature clogs. The musical interludes are goofy but slice nicely through the thickness of the satire and the repetition of messages. It's also a nice touch that the ensemble doubles as the live musicians, rather than the inclusion of a soundtrack or supporting band. Anderson attempts to have Old York and New, contemporary York converge, but the integration isn't smooth. Dunkin' Donuts Girl pops up as the update to Anna Joralemon, but her appearance is nonsensical. Sweetie Chin (the great Tina Lee), a Chinese reporter, behaves as the bridge between the past and the present, but her interactions with characters from New York's past are conceived by Anderson in a clunky way. And, if Old and New York were to be properly interlaced, then the show should include the disappearance of the beavers as well, extinct in New York City for hundreds of years now. However, the beaver remains as important as ever up until the show's curtain.

New Amsterdames should have premiered the week before Thanksgiving to usher in the messages of community sharing and benevolence. Of course, this production barely touches on the double-dealings between the settlers and the natives, providing for a sweet, compromising and incomplete portrayal of how New York was founded. The African slave population and impact is broached, but there is no discussion of how they laid down New York's landscape and foundation. You may chuckle and you may emerge with tidbits of information, but the library and even guided tours of lower Manhattan will give you a better sense of how New York city came to be. They'll also give you the nitty and the gritty that New York is renowned for. You'll only get a glossy view of New York with New Amsterdames, with none of the ridges and cracks that make it special.

New Amsterdames
Through December 16
HERE Arts Center, 145 Sixth Avenue, one block below Spring Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: www.here.org

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