Nice Fish review – Mark Rylance reels them in with kooky comedy

Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins have fashioned a play out of the latter’s prose poems that shows two men ice-fishing on a frozen lake in Minnesota. If it sounds odd, that is precisely what it is. In the course of 90 minutes the play offers random meditations on life, love and death that in its homespun whimsy reminded me of Garrison Keillor’s monologues about the fictional Minnesota town of Lake Wobegon.

Rylance himself adroitly plays one of two fishermen, Ron. With his face peering out of an orange jumpsuit, he looks like one of those figures you sometimes see posing in a grotesque pasteboard cutout at the seaside. Rylance also establishes that Ron, as a novice fisherman from Wisconsin, is a bit of a goofball, dropping his cellphone into an ice hole and smearing his face with baloney. That’s not the evening’s only baloney, and I found it hard to accept Ron’s transition from a piscatorial Jerry Lewis into a gnomic sage talking, a propos of an urban park, of “this empty space you cherish and protect where once your heart was”. But, although I couldn’t share the convulsive laughter that greeted his every utterance, Rylance is always watchable.

Wisdom or whimsy? … Rylance and Lichtscheidl with Raye Birk. Photograph: Teddy Wolff

His companion, Erik, is a Swedish-American postman whom Jim Lichtscheidl invests with an air of lugubrious melancholy. Fortunately, there are periodic interruptions to Ron and Erik’s musings. Bob Davis pops up as a bureaucratic jobsworth, but it’s typical of the evening that a passably funny satire on self-important officialdom is dissipated when the character reveals that he sees himself as a secular saint. Kayli Carter looks in as a fey pipe-smoking creature, who reads Moby-Dick and dispenses folk wisdom.

My favourite character, however, was her spear-fishing grandfather (Raye Birk) who, in the one line that really made me laugh, says of old age, “First you forget to zip, then you forget to unzip.” Jenkins clearly has an eye and ear for human oddity, but in the end too many kooks spoil the broth. The characters are also given to lofty utterances that don’t repay close examination: when Erik tells us that the only wilderness left to explore is “those vast empty spaces in your head” the temptation is to cry “phooey”. Claire van Kampen’s production, first seen at Minneapolis’s Guthrie theater in 2013, is, however, deft and clever. Todd Rosenthal’s design covers the stage in a sheet of virgin ice.

Mohsen Nouri, as lead puppeteer, manipulates tiny manikins representing the main characters. There are also some nice bits of physical business as when Ron and Erik are seen battling the spring winds with mimetic vigour.

An eye for human oddity … Birk with Kayli Carter.

An eye for human oddity … Birk with Kayli Carter. Photograph: Teddy Wolff

It all depends on what you want from an evening in the theatre. If you are happy to watch Mark Rylance playing an eccentric loner who feels love and life have passed him by, this may be enough. Personally, I hunger for something more substantial. The play also feels derivative. Having started by showing the testy relationship between two bickering old friends, it finally becomes a piece of absurdism in which they comment on the apparent meaninglessness of what we have just seen. At this point I realised that, given its fishy background, it might well be dubbed Waiting for Codot.

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