Monday, March 28, 2016

"Nice Fish" - Where life happens when you're doing something else

By Judd Hollander

Offering a look at a type of lifestyle that’s probably foreign to most city dwellers, yet touching on themes that are universal, American Repertory Theater's presentation of Nice Fish presents a picture of two men trying to temporarily get away from life's responsibilities, only to find themselves continually reminded of the very places they wish to leave. While at the same time, seeing flashes of something far more simple and at times, far more compelling. The show currently taking place at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.

Things begin and end on a frozen Minnesota lake in late March on the next to last day of ice fishing season. Erik (Jim Lichtscheidl) and Ron (Mark Rylance), two long-time friends, now both in middle age, have driven out for a last chance at hooking a couple of big ones before they have to pack it in for another year. At least that's Erik's idea, he being the more serious fisherman of the two and indeed, the only fisherman. Ron it seems, is only there to hang out with his friend, drink a couple of beers and try to see if he can get reception on his cell phone. That is, until he drops the phone into a hole he and Erik have bored into the ice. 

As time goes on, the two talk about the value of a particular fishing lure, how easy it is to misplace things, and the women they used to know and those they will know in the future. Most of all, they talk about the past, the way things were and never will be again. As Erik puts it, "what is past is forever lost". 

It should be noted that Erik and Ron are not so much speaking to each other as they are talking at each other. Or to be more exact, reciting the poetry of Louis Jenkins. Jenkins' work, along with Rylance's boyhood memories of winters in Wisconsin, serving as the inspiration for this somewhat existential tableau. The spoken words conjuring up some rather immense imagery; populated with feelings of hope, travel, a future of possibilities and of returning to where one started.

Opening to strands of polka music and the sight of an expansive ice field stretching as far as the eye can see - or at least as far back as the stage can make it appear - one feels transported to a place where the world is slightly surreal and where different realities can touch, if only for a moment. The text at times making mention of things which seem to cause great stress in life - such as trying to figure out where you left your watch the previous evening. Yet ones which ultimately have no significance in the larger scheme of the universe in which we live.

There are times in the play however, when reality does exert its presence. Such as when The DNR Man (Bob Davis), a local official and a stickler for regulations, comes by to see if Erik and Ron have the proper fishing permits. This encounter setting off a hilarious sequence of bureaucratic absurdity as the two friends try to deal with a regulation-obsessed soul who insists on having the proper "i's" dotted and "t's" crossed, even if it doesn't always make sense to do so.

Also crossing the duo's path is aging spear fisherman Wayne (Raye Birk), and his granddaughter Flo (Kayli Carter). Both of whom, like The DNR Man, initially seem to appear out of nowhere. It's later ascertained that Wayne and Flo are the owners of a nearby ice fishing shack. One which includes a sauna. Ron and Erik eventually bonding with them over such topics as canary breeding habits, the power of bowling pins, junk mail, and constellations in the night sky. 

Lichtscheidl is very good as Erik. A quiet and reflective sort, he also has a bit of the rebel inside. This latter aspect emerging when The DNR man comes around. Erik also gets to emote some of the more introspective speeches in the text while also doing a terrific slow burn as he tries to fish. His beginnings of a simmering rage caused by Ron continually hopping about from one place to another, usually in an attempt to stay warm. Ron often driving his friend to distraction in the process.

Rylance does well in making Ron far more than the simple caricature he could easily become. A sort of flighty everyman, and one continually at the mercy of the elements, Ron has a perennial woebegone look and the sense of uneasiness we've all felt at one time or another when stuck in a place we really don't want to be. Yet he also clearly likes spending time with his friend, and there are times when he actually seems to be enjoying himself. Ron would also probably delight in telling people how much fun he and Ron had together out there. After the adventure was safely behind him, of course. 

Blending well into the story are Birk and Carter as Wayne and Flo, though neither of these characters are as fully developed as Ron or Erik. Wayne embodying a sort of icon from an era that's quietly fading away, while Flo represents more of an image from the future. There's also the feeling that while these two sets of folks might not get along back on dry land, where they probably would have very little in common, out on the ice they're on pretty much equal footing as they eventually start share memories with one another. 

More than a play, Nice Fish offers what amounts to an immense immersive experience. The chance to fall into a world where you can be at one with yourself - and just fish. As Ron and Erik make clear towards the end, "it doesn't seem to have any plot". That may be quite true, but when all has been said and shown, it doesn't really matter. For what is truly offered here is a fascinating exercise in acting. This, coupled with the sure-handed direction of Claire van Kampen, who lets the actors take the source material and expand on it when necessary, allows Nice Fish to be a very intriguing, yet somewhat off-kilter piece where life and ice fishing coexist; and where cell phone signals can reach even as far as a drifting ice flow. As an added plus, the show doesn't spoon-feed the audience bits of information throughout. Rather, it makes you think and wonder about what's going on, while also offering at look at a situation that may be quite foreign in some instances, but in other ways, quite familiar. Oh yes, and it's also a lot of fun.

Featuring: Kayli Carter (Flo), Bob Davis (The DNR Man), Raye Birk (Wayne), Jim Lichtscheidl (Erik), Mark Rylance (Ron)

Nice Fish
by Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins
Drawn from the words of Louis Jenkins

Scenic Designer: Todd Rosenthal
Costume Designer: Ilona Somogyi
Lighting Designer: Japhy Weideman
Sound Designer: Scott W. Edwards
Composer: Claire van Kampen
Casting: Jim Carnahan, CSA
Production Stage Manager: Evangeline Rose Whitlock
Assistant Stage Manager: Alfredo Macias
Audio Supervisor: Claire Bacon
Lighting Supervisor: Dani Prados
Wardrobe Supervisor: Kelly Sinnot
Projection Supervisor: Dan Carr
Stage Crew: Kelly Allen, Kier Macartney, Katt Masterson

St. Ann's Warehouse
Brooklyn Bridge Park, 45 Water Street, dumbo, Brooklyn
Tickets: 718-254-8779, 866-811-4111 or www.
Running time: 1 Hour, Forty Minutes, no intermission

Closes: March 27

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