Described by director Claire van Kampen as ‘Waiting for Godot on ice’, American Repertory Theater’s Nice Fish offers a heady amalgam of hilarity, sadness and nostalgia, all on the slowly melting surface of a frozen lake in Minnesota.
Written by Tony Award magnet Mark Rylance and American prose poet Louis Jenkins, the play follows ice fisherman Erik (Jim Lichtscheidl) and his friend Ron (Rylance) as they wait on the final catch of the fishing season. As they wile away the hours, the pair ruminate on the passing of time, of youth and of relevance. Faced with blank white swaths of lake ice, their reflections on life and how they’ve dealt with it become a stark examination of what it means to actually engage with the act of living. Ron and Erik are prompted in their cogitation by a series of visitors that could as easily be described as visitations, each at a different point in their lives and each with a different understanding of how one should live it.
Despite its lofty subject matter, Nice Fish is not a solemn, sober play. In adapting Jenkins’ poems for the stage, Rylance and Jenkins have deftly translated all of their original comedy and tenderness. Although at times the dialogue is confusing and feels recited, there is a blooming beauty in the way that the common theme of life and the living of it emerges by the end of the evening. Moments of clarity do surface: Ron asking whether or not a person exists if no one remembers him addresses one of the play’s major questions. The audience is left to interpret the performance in such a way that one leaves with something of a personal understanding of it, a unique reaction. It is a far-reaching thing to try and treat a subject as grand as life itself in this general but incredibly personal way, but under the careful direction of van Kampen, Nice Fish seems to have gone a long way towards achieving it.
Mark Rylance’s Ron embodies the spirit of the poems – his jocular recollection of past loves and the bologna sandwiches he so loved as a child are delivered in an infinitely endearing Minnesotan cadence as he bounds about the stage building snowmen, guzzling beer and dropping his phone in fishing-holes. The innocence that Rylance lends to his character belies a thick nostalgia for his youth, when he was relevant to other people, and not just “that guy who they saw everywhere.”
Jim Lichtscheidl’s brooding, determined and unamused Erik is Ron’s foil throughout the play. Although his performance begins with some stiffness, Lichtscheidl captures and expresses a slowly-melting but stubborn misanthropy in Erik that is heartbreakingly easy to relate to. His portrayal of a man who has done everything he thought he was supposed to, only to be disappointed and angry with the results, feels tragically real. The sadness and seriousness in him make for some very funny clashes with Ron’s character, Erik’s alternately wry and desperate reactions to his friend’s buffoonery getting some of the biggest laughs of the evening.
The visitors on the ice that prompt so much of their rumination range in their effectiveness as characters. Bob Davis’ ‘The DNR Man’, in his slavish dedication to bureaucracy, represents a restraining force on life that has been elevated to a point of power. Davis plays him with all the vim and entitlement you’d expect, though his character seems underdeveloped and stunted by the play. Flo, played by Kayli Carter, is the youngest of the characters. She seems to have sussed out happiness and appreciation for the importance of the moments in life captured with her camera’s flash. Carter expresses her character’s innocence with clear attention to Rylance’s Ron – she is, perhaps, what Ron once was, and what he wishes he could be again. Her performance, while not as funny as others and at times overdone, represents the core warmth and humanity of the play. She is the first to break the fourth wall and claim that all the world’s a stage as she leaps down from the ice sheet and walks away through the audience. Raye Birk (who replaces Jenkins in the role at St Ann’s Warehouse) does a good job of expressing the harsh, experienced nature of her grandfather, Wayne.
Visually, the play is eminently successful. Todd Rosenthal’s set, which juts out on an angle towards the audience and is backed by a softly lit sky, has the feeling of a landscape painting in its careful composition and expressive representation of snow drifts. Perspective is used to great effect: model cars and trees at the back of the stage and a two foot tall cabin on the lake give a sense of the scale of the great white nothing that the characters face. The use of a doll to stand in for characters in the distance works well and further draws the audience into the world of the frozen lake.
Nice Fish, for all its characters’ expressions of regret at missing out, is a deeply warming, encouraging call for its audience to pay attention to and engage with life. The dialogue is confusing and comes in droves, and in some cases moves so quickly that it just has to be accepted at face value. There is, no doubt, the temptation to switch off to a great deal of it, but if one persists, its meaning and driving themes reveal themselves in a surprisingly natural, organic way. A fellow audience member’s one-sentence review as we milled out of the theatre – ‘it was really strange, but I enjoyed it’ – seems like the kind of approach to life that Rylance, Jenkins, van Kampen and Lichtscheidl would heartily endorse.
Nice Fish is on at St Ann’s Warehouse until 27th March. For tickets, click here.