If you think about it, ice fishing isn’t a bad metaphor for life: We’re all waiting, on some level, for something auspicious to tug on our line — and most of the time it’s tough to tell whether anything’s even alive down there. All we can do is bundle up, bait the hook, and wait.
So suggests Nice Fish, a quirky theatrical collaboration between Tony-winning actor Mark Rylance and poet Louis Jenkins making its New York debut at St. Ann’s Warehouse in a production directed by Claire van Kampen. Part oddball bromance, part poetic meditation, part talking diorama, the unevenly charming concoction follows a pair of dudes — Ron (Rylance) and buddy Erik (Jim Lichtscheidl) — as they spend the day fishing on a frozen lake. They discuss the appropriate bait for luring lake-dwellers of the icy north; they make snowmen, drink beer, and encounter other, even stranger, stragglers through the wintry landscape: a Department of Natural Resources officer (Bob Davis) anxious to ensure that their licenses are up to date; a spear fisherman, Wayne (Raye Birk), who instructs them in the old ways of harpooning prey; and Wayne’s eccentric granddaughter Flo (Kayli Carter), who emerges from an icehouse and joins in their musings.
Todd Rosenthal’s beautifully imagined set — all low sky, crumpled ice sheets, and deep forced perspective — places us vividly in the starkly beautiful, inhospitably bleak northlands. (Both Rylance and Jenkins spent their childhoods near the shores of the Great Lakes, a connection that fueled their collaboration on the piece.) Tiny, bare-branched trees dot the horizon; twinkling lights signal a toy-sized train chugging by.
Jenkins’s mildly surreal prose-poetry meanders circuitously through the stuff of everyday life: childhood memories, relationships, easily overlooked elements of the natural world. “Being mostly water as we are, it’s not so bad living in a cold climate like this one,” observes Ron. Rylance, as a past director of Shakespeare’s Globe, is a performer with longstanding delight in language, and hearing him savor such flinty phrases brings its own kind of pleasure. But there’s a difference between performing poetry and transmuting it into theatrical action, and this is where the ice under Nice Fish starts to crack. It’s often unclear whether the performers are addressing each other or us; equally perplexing is why they’re doing so.
As the piece unfolds, lacking the armature of narrative development, Rylance, Jenkins, and van Kampen resort to increasingly surreal antics in the interest, it seems, of keeping our attention. (Flo, in particular — a winsome young woman in a world of coveralled men — smacks of manic pixie desperation.) The performers gather on a plaid couch, in the coruscating light of a fluorescent palm tree, to meditate on change and time. There are gunshots, or maybe that’s thunder. The piece gets meta: Trapdoors open; actors hop off the stage. Ron and Erik’s ice floe detaches from the larger sheet and floats toward oblivion.
Toward the end the transformations get faster and stranger. A final gesture — hinting, unsubtly, that maybe, in life, we’re not so much the fisherman as the winter-addled, ice-trapped fish — unfolds so abruptly that it comes across more like a gag than a theatrical event. There’s a lot of beauty here, but in theater, as in fishing, it pays to be patient, to trust that, eventually, we’ll take the bait.
By Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins
St. Ann’s Warehouse
45 Water Street, Brooklyn