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The idea of ice fishing as a metaphor for life doesn’t seem to hold much theatrical promise. But Mark Rylance takes the idea and runs with it in his play co-written with Minnesota poet Louis Jenkins, based on the latter’s humorous and philosophical prose poems. Featuring a hilarious deadpan performance by the three-time Tony winner and current Oscar nominee for Bridge of Spies, Nice Fish is a great catch.
Set entirely on a frozen Minnesota lake, the play takes place during the last day of fishing season, when buddies Erik (Jim Lichtscheidl) and Ron (Rylance) have set up camp. The stoic Erik is the more experienced angler, using high-tech methods in his approach. Ron, clad in a silly orange jumpsuit, seems to be there on a lark, happily drinking beer and goofing around, more interested in chatter than challenge, absentmindedly dropping his cell phone through a hole in the ice.
Other characters eventually wander by, including an officious, by-the-book Department of Natural Resources ranger (Bob Davis) who sternly lectures the pair on the arcane rules and fees attendant to their outing; Flo (Kayli Carter), a cheerful young woman who invites them to partake of the sauna she’s installed in her ice house: and Wayne (Raye Birk, in the role previously played by Jenkins himself), an elder statesman who disdains Erik’s newfangled methods and extols the virtues of spear fishing, which Erik points out is now illegal.
The 95-minute absurdist play features numerous short scenes punctuated by blackouts and is largely composed of extracts from Jenkins’ droll poems. (Theater buffs will recognize one of those as the acceptance speech Rylance delivered upon receiving his first Tony Award in 2008, for Boeing-Boeing: “When you are in town, wearing some kind of uniform is helpful … policeman, priest, et cetera,” Ron advises. “Driving a tank is very impressive, or a car with official lettering on the side. … At the very least, you should wear a suit and carry a briefcase and a cell phone.”)
The two men express very different attitudes about life. Ron delivers a long and rhapsodic speech about the childhood glories of a bologna sandwich, precisely demonstrating how it should be made with white bread, mustard and Miracle Whip, folded in half and bitten in the middle of the fold.
“When you unfold the sandwich you had a hole, a circle in the center of the bread and baloney frame, a window, a porthole from which you could get a new view of the world,” he proclaims exuberantly.
In response, Erik points out, “Some days are so sad nothing will help, when love has gone, when the sunshine and clear sky only tease and mock you.”
Later on, the piece directed by Claire Van Kampen (Rylance’s wife) turns decidedly meta, with the stagecraft revealed and stagehands seen fussing about. Flo jumps off the proscenium, turns around and comments, “The world is a stage. But don’t try to move anything. You might hurt yourself. Besides, that’s a job for the stagehands, and union rules are strict.”
At the end, there’s a distinct Samuel Beckett vibe as Ron and Erik transform themselves into an elderly couple. “Old people are exiting this life as if it were a movie,” Ron says. “‘I didn’t get it,'” they recite. “‘It didn’t seem to have any plot,'” Erik adds.
That may also be the response of some audience members looking for more of a narrative. Nice Fish is certainly disjointed and rambling, and its slow pace could provoke irritation among the less patient. But its whimsical observational humor is consistently amusing, and the performers deliver the poetry with unforced naturalness. All are excellent, but it’s Rylance who enchants. The actor — born in England but raised largely in Wisconsin, so he’s familiar with the Midwestern milieu — plays his sadsack character like a modern-day Stan Laurel, buffeted by forces he cannot understand yet taking delight in the challenge.
Venue: St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn, New York
Cast: Raye Birk, Kayli Carter, Bob Davis, Jim Lichtscheidl, Mark Rylance
Playwrights: Mark Rylance, Louis Jenkins
Director-composer: Claire van Kampen
Set designer: Todd Rosenthal
Costume designer: Ilona Somogyi
Lighting designer: Japhy Weideman
Sound designer: Scott W. Edwards
Production: American Repertory Theatre
Presented by St. Ann’s Warehouse
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