“Nice Fish” is both the title and the punchline of the deliriously funny existential ruminations that Mark Rylance (currently up for an acting Oscar for “Bridge of Spies”) and the Midwestern folk-bard Louis Jenkins have fashioned from Jenkins’ poetry. It’s a compact, unpretentious play, but gorgeously set (by designer Todd Rosenthal) on the vast stage of the spectacular new theater built to house Off Broadway arts presenter St. Ann’s Warehouse. An early version was staged at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, an apt midwestern locus for this imaginative piece about two ice fishermen on a frozen lake in Minnesota.
The first sight of director Claire Van Kampen’s cleverly staged production is a visual knockout. Two friends, bundled in heavily-padded outdoor garb (kudos to costumer Ilona Somogyi) stand in the foreground, surrounded by their ice-fishing paraphernalia and preparing to drill two holes in a frozen lake. Since Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes, we can’t say which one, but from the audience perspective, we’re looking across a broad snow-dusted expanse that stretches for days.
Beyond them, way off in the distance, is a road lined with tiny trees and tiny cars and an occasional tiny train tooting its thin whistle. It’s one of those expansive views of the natural world that make men feel small. Between here and there are some colorful icehouses that seem embedded in the ice. Van Kampen’s music and the ambient sounds supplied by Scott W. Edwards — a shrill wind, the crackle of shifting ice, that lonely train whistle — actually feel cold in your ear.
Erik (a well-grounded Jim Lichtscheidl, salt of the earth) is the experienced — one might say fanatical — sportsman here. He’s got all the latest gear and he’s come fully loaded for, well, fish. Maybe it comes from all those solitary hours spent on the ice, but Erik’s worldview tends to be philosophical, not to say morbid. (“Words disappear and an image remains. … Out of a lifetime, a few words, a few pictures, and everything you have lost is lurking there in the dark, poised to strike.”)
Ron (Rylance) is less poetic and more unmoored: “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 …. Otherwise, it might appear that you have no idea what you are doing, that you are merely wandering the earth, no particular reason for being here, no particular place to go.”
The sentiment may be melancholic, but Rylance’s drawled delivery is a howl. His affect is a vacant deadpan, over the trees and far away. The accent itself is pure Midwestern music — flat as that frozen lake and high as the wind. Although the actor was born in England and does much of his work there, he spent his childhood and youth (from ages two to 18) in Milwaukee. So there’s a genuine authenticity to his accent.
As the hours on the ice stretch on, the two friends fall into the trance-like state that comes over sailors and mountain climbers and other outdoorsmen who spend long stretches of time in stoic solitude. Erik and Ray aren’t entirely alone, since they are visited by a feisty young woman (Kayli Carter); an annoying officer (Bob Davis) with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, come to badger them about their licenses; and an old spear fisherman (Raye Birk) looking back on his life with longing and regret. (“Remember all those nights of wine, the heated discussion, the smoky room, the music? Those questions you pondered then have no relevance,” he says. “We die of silliness, finally.”)
Some wonderful theatrical effects are executed during the show’s many blackout scenes. The best one might be the fierce wind that whips across the lake, so strong it blows Erik and Ron sideways in its whiplash. And the show ends with a coup de theatre that is pure surreal pleasure. But it’s Jenkins’ poetry — that laconic voice, extending provocative thoughts and unexpected insights — that hangs in the air at the end of the show.