By JERRY TALLMER
Twenty-four dollars and a string of beads.
Don’t you believe it. Ellen K. Anderson doesn’t believe it.
That’s what Peter Minuit of Nieuw Amsterdam is supposed to have paid the Lenape Indians in 1626 for the deed to the island of Manhatta $24 in old Dutch money and a string of beads. Henry Hudson had sailed up that river in 1609. The British grabbed it away from the Dutch in 1672.
“The truth is, as we sit here,” says playwright Anderson, “there is no deed to Manhattan. It does not exist. No one knows where it is, if it does exist. I think that about 1930 some scholar did the math and that’s where that rumor of the $24 started.”
In the world premiere of the Flying Fig production of “New Amsterdames,” her female-flourishing rigadoon through December 16 at HERE, 145 Sixth Avenue at Dominick Street (plus two subsequent performances in Queens), all sorts of types human, animal, male, female, female in male garb, beavers in human garb dash around trying to steal the precious deed to Manhattan from one another.
“There’s a beaver now living in the Bronx River,” says Ms. Anderson. “His name is José. He has no mate. It’s kind of sad.”
One of the characters in “New Amsterdames” is a giant tail-slapping female beaver everybody else has the hots for. Its name, her name, is Kitchi Amik, and she is played, says the playwright, by “a regular and quite attractive woman named Lucille Duncan, who carries herself like a giant beaver. The Indians believed there was a giant beaver, and there is also a thing a huge beaver skeleton to which archaeologists have given the name Castoroides ohioensis.”
Also populating the premises are a rapacious real-estate tycoon named Margriet Hardenbroeck (Jeanie Dalton); the governor’s wife, Judith Bayard Stuyvesant (Michaela Goldhaber); Anna Joralemon, the inventor of donuts (Lori Gardner); Dot Angola, an African-born vegetable vendor (Abigail Ramsay); a beaver named Een (Ian Christiansen) and a beaver named Twee (Arlene Chico-Lugo); an Indian beaver trapper named Sukalan (Andrea Caban); a rascal named Knickerbocker (Nathaniel P, Claridad); and a 21st century TV street-interview reporter named Sweetie Chin (Tina Lee).
In command of all this hugger-mugger is director Heather Ondersma, who has known and worked with Ellen Anderson since Ms. Ondersma was a student at University of California, Santa Barbara, and Ms. Anderson a lecturer/director there, as she still is.
Together they have done three pieces before this: “Mud Flaps,” which takes its name from those tire-cleaners on big six-wheelers; “Liz Estrada,” which is Aristophanes re-set during “the great oil wars of 2030”; and “Shirtwaist,” a fine, haunting “musical ghost story” about the Triangle sweatshop fire that took the lives of 146 mostly young women in this city on March 15, 1911.
Heather Ondersma, one of the founders of Flying Fig, a theater company with a special interest in women, is herself of Dutch extraction. Ellen Anderson is not, but as the labor-oriented daughter of a Detroit tool-and-die maker “who was also something of an artist,” she has she told me when “Shirtwaist” was playing Off-Off-Broadway three years ago “known from the age of 5 that it was the wrong idea to cross a picket line.”
Her husband is playwright Bob Potter; her daughter, Crosby Buhl, is a filmmaker and Fulbright scholar.
For much of her information about Nieuw Amsterdam, Ms. Anderson is in debt to Charles T. Gehring, the Albany-based scholar, historian, and translator who has spent 30 years going through 12,000 folios of Dutch colonial papers. It is unlikely that in any of those thousands of documents there is exegesis on one sub rosa connotation of “beaver” that has more to do with anatomy than zoology. Female anatomy.
“Yes, there is,” says the playwright, “and during development of this work it was something we talked about a lot. There is, by the way, a beaver skin in the Museum of the City of New York that you can touch. In the end we made a conscious decision not to make this a children’s play, not to let [that connotation] go as innuendo.”
What Peter Minuit or Henry Hudson would say is not available at the moment.
NEW AMSTERDAMES. By Ellen K. Anderson. Directed by Heather Ondersma. World premiere Flying Fig production through December 16 at HERE, 145 Sixth Avenue at Dominick Street, (212) 352-3101. Also December 18, 19 at Queens Theater in the Park.
“The constant haggling for repairs, having a hostile relationship with your landlord as a rent-regulated tenant, this becomes your lifestyle,” she said.