Todd Rosenthal’s remarkably atmospheric and evocative setting is waiting for the audience when they come into the theater: a huge expanse of a corrugated ice flow in Northern Minnesota in forced perspective with miniature cars, ice fishing huts and a train in the far distance. Erik, a dour, taciturn ice-fishing enthusiast played by Jim Lichtscheidl, dressed in a green parka and yellow cap, and Ron (Rylance), a fishing novice dressed in a glowing orange parka and matching hat, appear on the ice to drill holes in the frozen lake on this last day of the ice fishing season. As Ron tells us in his first monologue, “If you go into the woods, the back country, someplace past all human habitation, it is a good idea to wear orange and carry a gun, or, depending on the season, carry a fishing pole, or a camera with a big lens. Otherwise it might appear that you have no idea what you are doing…”
It transpires that Ron has no idea what he is doing nor does he plan to fish, and has come to kibitz and clown: he builds a snowman, plays loud music in Erik’s truck scaring off the fish, drinks beer from his cooler – and immediately loses his cellphone and sunglasses down his ice hole. Through all this Erik, a serious fisherman, is unflappable though he does seem to become a little more impatient as the day wears on. The show is half Midwestern philosophy, half vaudeville, a kind of Waiting for Godot on ice. They speak of fishing, shared memories, time passing, the cold of a Midwestern winter, family, the coming spring, nature, wishes, change, getting lost and back to fishing again.
They are joined by The DNR Man, hilariously played by Bob Davis as a deadpan officer from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, who wants to check they have the right permit even though it is the last day of the season. As he quotes the rule book in a flat, mechanical voice, Rylance’s Ron strings him along asking question after question about the different prices and categories possible. Next to show up is Flo (Kayli Carter), a determined and curious young woman visiting her grandfather’s ice house (complete with sauna) that is closest to us. She carries a copy of Moby Dick and joins the men in making philosophical remarks. Finally, her crusty elderly grandfather Wayne (Raye Birk) makes an appearance. He is a devoted spear fisherman though spear fishing is illegal in Minnesota. The play gives him Jenkins’ best poem about the dislikes of Old Man Winter.
The cast is uniformly fine and is highly attuned to Rylance, Jenkins and Van Kampen’s conception. Rylance and Lichtscheidl are dramatic opposites. The British Rylance, who spent his formative years in Wisconsin, has a totally credible Midwestern drawl and as we have come to expect from him, he completely inhabits this character. Just with the right pause in an unexpected place he makes a seemingly innocuous platitude hilariously funny. Lichtscheidl is excellent as his straight man, never changing his expression, and never being riled by the inappropriate antics of his long-time friend who is out of his element. Davis turns his officious authority figure into a little comic masterpiece. Carter makes Flo a cheerful, ebullient presence, the only woman on the ice. Replacing the previously announced Jenkins, Birk brings an air of age and authority to Flo’s grandfather. Van Kampen’s understated direction wisely stays out of the way of her excellent cast.
Aside from Rosenthal’s remarkable setting which turns the theater into a frozen lake, the rest of the production team have made their presence felt in impressive ways. Japhy Weideman’s subtle lighting design with the slowly fading day and the fall of evening taking the audience totally by surprise is a sleight of hand. The witty costumes by Ilona Somogyi comment on each of the characters. Scott W. Edwards’ sound design makes the setting real with the continually cracking ice and the howling winds. The appropriate original music is also the creation of Van Kampen.
Nice Fish by Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins is an entertaining showcase for the poet’s work and gives Rylance a refreshing comic turn in a lighter vein that we usually see him. The physical vaudeville and the stage picture are particularly memorable. Fishing has often been considered a metaphor for life since Izaak Walton’s 1653 The Compleat Angler and Nice Fish proves to follow in this vein. Its clever and droll witticisms may not teach you anything new, but will prove diverting and worth the reminder of their wisdom.
Nice Fish (through March 27, 2016)
American Repertory Theater
St. Ann’s Warehouse, 45 Water Street, Brooklyn Bridge Park, DUMBO, in Brooklyn
For tickets, call 718-254-8779 or visit http://www.stannswarehouse.org
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission
Nice Fish is transferring to the Harold Pinter Theater in London in November 2016
see https://seatplan.com/london/nice-fish/ for more information