ART's "Nice Fish": Prose with No Cons

Jim Lichtscheidl, Kayli Carter, Mark Rylance & Louis Jenkins in "Nice Fish"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

A work of ART can be a prose poem, as illustrated by their current production, “Nice Fish”, a collaborative work of Louis Jenkins (whose conversational poems are acted out) and actor Mark Rylance (who twice delivered them in Tony-winning acceptance speeches). Imbedded in prose form, Jenkins' writings are hardly prosaic, though they could easily be unrecognized as craft. They splendidly capture the dialogue of Minnesotans, whose isolation in a cold climate often gets expressed in non sequiturs. The play is compiled from more than five hundred poems rather like a jigsaw puzzle. As a prose poem is not really a poem, at least in form if not in content, so this production at first doesn't appear to be a play. On the surface, two men meet once every year on the last day of ice fishing season, searching for something deep enough to swallow them, a bit on the edge, in vast inward and outward space, imagining something swimming just beneath the surface. As the fourth wall thaws, so does the frigidity of normally accepted speech, with its inflexibility and unequivocal definitiveness, as described by Flo (the kooky Kayli Carter) the sole female in the cast, which includes three ice fisherman, Ron (the remarkable Rylance), Wayne (the witty Jenkins) and Erik (the comically laconic Jim Lichtscheidl), and an unnamed Natural Resources rep (the hysterical Bob Davis), all voicing, individually and collectively, Jenkins' views of “neighboring” one another, ultimately creating a sort of dynamic solidarity.

While creating poetry is solitary, a surreal play like this is much more of a communal effort, like a quilt stitched together from treasured remnants. This is exemplified by a cast whose take on Midwestern deadpan dialect is flawless, under Claire van Kampen's well-timed direction, her own music compositions like the sound traveling across a frozen lake. Then there are the creatively crazy settings by Todd Rosenthal, gloriously goofy costuming by Ilona Somogyi, illuminatingly lively lighting by Japhy Weideman and resoundingly ominous creaking and groaning sound by Scott W. Edwards, all coming together into an eventually coherent, terrifically entertaining whole that in the end requires the final crucial collaboration with an audience. As Rylance states in the program, an effort such as this lives or dies in the imagination and senses of the audience; thus in this free form poem, you are expected to take active part in this experience to enjoy fully this wonderfully imaginative work.

Even before the play begins, it is announced that “what happens in Minnesota leaves Minnesota” and we are urged to “kindly rely on the strangeness of others”. As the work closes, we will have been treated to polkas, dry and wry Pinteresque pauses, blackouts and vignettes. It's theater of the absurdly hilarious (e.g. “the road never snowplowed”) as the characters ice fish and hunt on a lake full of ingenious streams of unconsciousness. It becomes self-referential as the play features verbal signposts throughout, though “there is no message”, and a prospective audience member is depicted decrying that “”there's no plot” or “I didn't get it”. As one character puts it, there's gravity and then there's seriousness. This is, in the end, (and what an imaginatively ending it has!) just over ninety minutes of wild and wondrous language. There is but one logical sequela: do go down that rabbit hole; it's a wintery wonderland. See it!

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