It’s April, it’s still snowing, and The Guthrie Theater launches a show about ice fishing. What are the chances? The forces of nature, the theater muses and Fate itself must have all played supporting roles. But the theater also patiently angled for this one and after a long, cold winter, the Guthrie’s landed a nice, big hit.
A collaboration between writer, director and actor Mark Rylance and Duluth poet Louis Jenkins, Nice Fish delighted its opening night audience, but this regionally-flavored little jewel is likely to have a long life beyond Minnesota’s borders. Fanciful, imaginative and thoughtful, it’s also just plain entertaining.
Rylance as “Ron” and Jim Lichtscheidl as his fishing buddy, “Eric,” illuminate the larger world in which Jenkins’ prose poems live—Lichtscheidl skillfully playing the straight man to Rylance’s comedy. Rylance who played Per Gynt in the Guthrie’s production of that play in 2008, has found a much better match with Jenkins’ work. The poems bring a smile when you read them; they’re laugh-out-loud funny with Rylance’s perfectly timed delivery.
The environment is a frozen lake in northern Minnesota—in this case, one without a large community of fish houses, which gives the fishermen the isolation they prefer. Almost. There is a pesky, know-it-all DNR officer, played with swagger by Bob Davis.
Eric and Ron are not much alike. Eric sticks with fishing, sitting on his upturned bucket, jigging his little pole; Ron wanders like a puppy, his fishing and his attention lacking the focus that Eric brings to their activity. The imbalance sets up a way for a plot to be fashioned from the more random observations of Jenkins’ poems.
The vastness of the horizon, the sameness of it (and the absence of any actual fish) all but require that something must appear to alter the scene. And indeed it does. “Flo” (Emily Swallow) shows up, looking for a party. Little do they know that she is an enchantress, serving cocktails and dancing around the ice in a bright green cocktail dress, the aurora borealis personified. There is danger in her invitations, of course. A boyfriend, “Wayne” (Chris Carlson), appears on a snowmobile mounted with horns. He is a burly sort. Jealous, too. And he has dynamite. Carlson is convincing as the bearer of another kind of danger.
The activities that follow loosely represent archetypal themes, which is stretching the premise a bit; the hockey game seems a fitting idea, but as played didn’t quite work. But the “boy meets girl; boy loses girl” plot is an excuse to talk about more interesting things. This isn’t really about what people do—the men are on the ice all day, after all, without catching any fish—so what is it about?
In Jenkins’ poem, The Ice Fisherman, he writes: “He’s after something big, something down there that is pure need, something that, had it the wherewithal, would swallow him whole.”
That’s an open invitation for someone with Rylance’s exquisite sense of the comic (and apparent interest in psychology and mythology) to see what else could happen when “nothing is happening.” Maybe they can make the invisible visible—like your breath when it’s cold enough.
Nice Fish runs through May 18. Recommended.
Mark Rylance started the association with Jenkins by reciting Jenkins’ “Back Country” as his 2008 Tony Award acceptance speech. Eventually, Rylance and Jenkins worked together on a play and ultimately were invited by the Guthrie to complete the work there. Rylance’s wife, Claire Van Kampen, composed the music and co-directs with Rylance.
Pictured: Mark Rylance and Jim Lichtscheidl. Photo: Richard Termine.