A.R.T.’s ‘Nice Fish’ A Surreal Look at Life (4 Stars)

Nice Fish – Written by Mark Rylance & Louis Jenkins; Directed by Claire van Kampen; Scenic Design by Todd Rosenthal; Costume Design by Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design by Japhy Weideman; Sound Design by Scott W. Edwards. Presented by the American Repertory Theatre, Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St. Cambridge, through February 7.

By Mike Hoban

Fishing – at least for those of us who aren’t Bassmasters – often has little to do with the actual catching of fish.

Don’t get me wrong. If I’m going fishing, it’s always with the intent of catching fish. But if it doesn’t work out that way and I’m left with hours of just talking with a friend as we cast our lines, or spending time by myself waiting for a bite but contemplating everything else in my life that needs working out – a kind of unguided meditation if you will – that’s okay too. A day fishing never feels wasted.

The same could be said of “Nice Fish”, the A.R.T.’s latest production. There may be no big payoff at the end, but the series of charming little vignettes are enough to keep one entertained throughout. Set upon a frozen lake in Minnesota, the play chronicles two middle-aged guys patiently jigging for sturgeon or whatever else swims below the icy sheet while they talk about their lives and the universe around them. Not surprisingly, there is little talk of fishing, but Erik (Jim Lichtscheidl) is clearly the more serious of the two – not only about fishing, but life in general. Ron (Shakespearean actor and multiple Tony Award winner Mark Rylance) is another story. A case of arrested development who spends most of the “fishing” time guzzling beer and doing shots, building snowmen (for which he provides ventriloquist services), operating a Big Mouth Billy Bass, and generally testing the patience of his staid friend, Ron is the friend who may never grow up, but he’s a lot of fun to have around nonetheless. And it’s clear that Rylance is having just as much fun with the role as the audience.

In the early stages of the play, the men reveal their foibles through little stories, and I readied myself for a series of homey observations about life such as those heard on “Prairie Home Companion”, including one exchange when Ron tells Erik (or is it the other way around?) “I spend a great deal of time fretting over things that most people don’t even care about.” The tack changes dramatically with the appearance of the Fish & Game warden (dubbed the DNR Man, and played with a hilarious quirkiness by Bob Davis), a stickler for the rules and regs who can cite chapter and verse of the local codes of which Ron is in violation of, namely, that he is without an ice fishing license. Following some clever word play involving the various license and commemorative wildlife stamp combos that Ron could purchase to avoid a fine, the comic scene appears to be wrapping up when the warden faces the audience and delivers an out-of-left-field proclamation about being a radiant minor saint who, “instead of walking, now float(s) at a height of three inches from the ground," before he exits.

That scene takes the performance from quirky comedy to someplace much more surreal than a frozen lake in the middle of nowhere, but it also is the jumping off point for a series of rather beautiful prose poems that loosely form the narrative of “Nice Fish”. The play itself is actually a collaboration between Rylance and Louis Jenkins (who wrote the collection of prose poems which “Nice Fish” is based on), and who also plays Wayne, a strange older fisherman whose ice house actually has a sauna in it. There’s also another character oddly connected to Wayne named Flo (the charming Kayli Carter), but she could be either his granddaughter or wildly inappropriate young girlfriend (which was the relationship in an earlier version of the play with a younger actor), because it’s never clear.

As brilliant a writer as Jenkins is, I found myself drifting during some of the longer soliloquies, as did my companion. But there was enough to hold my attention to see what weird thing would happen next – whether it be a menacing wind storm or a character popping his head through the ice to retrieve Ron’s lost cell phone. Another aspect of the performance that I found fairly spellbinding was the collaboration between the set, sound and lighting designers in creating this little universe. The set looks something like the bottom of a snow globe, with little houses and roads set in the background to give the perspective that this is indeed a really big lake. But as the day turned to night, the background sky and the various shades as the sun fell and the stars came out were a thing of beauty to behold. And fishing fans won’t be disappointed either, as Erik finally does land a five foot muskellunge at the end of the play, with the post-catch monologue being one of the play’s best stories. A must see for lovers of prose, but a somewhat long fish story for the rest of us. For more info, go to: http://americanrepertorytheater.org/events/show/nice-fish