by: Carol Rocamora
Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s aide, ice-fishing in Minnesota?
Yes, it sounds like a mixed metaphor, but that’s the kind of journey we’ve come to expect from the amazing Mark Rylance. A brilliant actor of extraordinary versatility, Rylance has played a dazzling range of classical and contemporary roles – from the demonic Richard III and the demure Olivia to the explosive Rooster Byron in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem. (The latter two won him Tony’s.) On screen, he’s played the stoical Rudolf Abel in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, and the devious Cromwell in Wolf Hall, BBC’s television series.
And now he’s starring in his most surprising role yet – Ron, a neophyte ice-fisherman, in a new play called Nice Fish that he’s co-authored with Louis Jenkins, drawn from the Minnesota poet’s prose/poetry.
Though we know him as an acclaimed British Shakespearean actor (he helmed Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre from 1996 – 2006), Rylance grew up in a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin and its winters remain in his blood. “I miss the strength of the seasons,” he told an interviewer, “and the mortal peril of the winter.”
So when Rylance was working at the Guthrie seven years ago he tried ice-fishing for the first time, and was inspired. He’d already read and admired “The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart,” Jenkin’s anthology of prose/poetry, and loved its mixture of the mundane and the profound. In fact, he quoted one of Jenkins’s lines at the 2008 Tony Award ceremony and stunned both audiences and the poet himself.
Next, Rylance approached Jenkins with the idea of shaping his words into a theatre piece. Intrigued, the poet agreed. The result is a charming, eccentric ninety-minute existential meditation on fishing, friendship, and life, co-authored by Rylance and Jenkins. Nice Fish premiered at the Guthrie in 2013. A reworked version opened last month at the American Repertory Theater, and is now playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse under the skillful direction of Claire van Kampen, Rylance’s wife.
For me, Nice Fish bears a startling resemblance to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in a number of ways. First, there’s the dramatic form – both can be called “philosophical vaudevilles,” series of conversations and comedic bits that don’t appear to go anywhere but which are entertaining, provocative and ultimately tragicomedic.
Second, there’s the similarity in their settings. Beckett’s play takes place by a roadside, in an unspecified time and place. Nice Fish takes place on an ice-covered lake somewhere in Minnesota – one that seems to stretch on forever in St. Ann’s deep auditorium. Both landscapes are desolate and timeless.
Third, there are five characters in each play – a pair of “buddies” who are constant, and three who appear from nowhere. In Nice Fish, Ron (Mark Rylance) and Erik (Jim Lichtscheidl) are visited first by an Officer from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (Bob Davis), who insists on checking their credentials and charging them for a fishing license, in the play’s most hilarious bit. There’s also Wayne, an older spear fisherman (played originally by Jenkins and now by Raye Birk) and his granddaughter Flo (Kayli Carter), both of whom offer some of the play’s richest philosophical musings and surreal moments.
Fourth, there’s the action – or rather the non-action – in both plays. In Beckett’s play, Didi and Gogo (two tramps) are waiting for a mysterious man named Godot to come and save them, while Ron and his fishing partner Erik are waiting to catch a fish. One could say that it amounts to the same thing. As Wayne puts it, “There’s nothing left here to explore except those vast empty spaces in your head.”
So the fishermen content themselves to “look for deep meaning in things” – whether it’s dropping a cell phone into a hole in the ice (Rylance, hilariously) or, ultimately, catching one fish. “The rest of us never truly experience life and the richness it has to offer,” they discover at the play’s end.
Thanks to Rylance’s indomitable comedic spirit and Jenkins’s poetic words, Nice Fish offers a happier world view than Beckett’s – one that may send you up north to try ice-fishing yourself.
Nice Fish, by Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins, playing through March 27 at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn, www.stannswarehouse.org
Nice Fish is set to open for a limited run of ten weeks only at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London’s West End, with previews beginning on 15th November 2016 and the production running over Christmas until 21st January 2017 http://seatplan.com/london/nice-fish