Review Roundup: NICE FISH, Starring Mark Rylance, Opens at St. Ann's Warehouse

By: Feb. 22, 2016

St. Ann's Warehouse continues inaugural season in its new theater on the waterfront in Brooklyn Bridge Park with the NYC premiere of the A.R.T.'s NICE FISH, conceived, written and adapted by Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins, directed by Claire van Kampen, and starring Rylance. The production will run for six weeks, now through March 27, in the Joseph S. and Diane H. Steinberg Theater.

In addition to Mark Rylance as Ron and Jim Lichtscheidl as Eric, the cast includes Raye Birk as Wayne, Bob Davis as the DNR Officer and Kayli Carter as Flo. The production features scenic design by Todd Rosenthal, costume design by Ilona Somogyi, lighting design by Japhy Weideman, and sound design by Scott Edwards.

Tony and Olivier Award winner Mark Rylance conceived and wrote NICE FISH with one of his heroes, the celebrated poet Louis Jenkins; they have adapted the play from Jenkins' book about ice fishing in Minnesota. NICE FISH takes place on a lake in frozen Minnesota where the ice is beginning to creak and groan. It's the end of the fishing season, and two men are out on the ice one last time, angling for answers to life's larger questions. A play woven together from the acclaimed prose poems of Louis Jenkins, NICE FISH reflects nature with a wry surreality.

Let's see what the critics had to say...

Charles Isherwood, The New York Times: Fortunately, it took only a few minutes for the audience to simmer down and settle into the bewitching theatrical spell cast by "Nice Fish"...The production, which draws on Mr. Jenkins's prose poems...has been expertly directed by Claire van Kampen (also Mr. Rylance's wife), and features wonderful performances not just from Mr. Rylance, probably the greatest Shakespearean actor of his generation, but from four other gifted actors...Mr. Jenkins's poetry fits more smoothly on the stage than most, with its earthy conversational style and everyday humor...The evanescence of life, the elusiveness of happiness, the mysterious workings of memory: All hover as recurring themes around the frosty edges of "Nice Fish"...Mr. Lichtscheidl and Mr. Rylance give nicely contrasted performances, even as they establish a rooted sense of their characters' unstated affection and slightly gloomy worldviews.

Marilyn Stasio, Variety: "Nice Fish" is both the title and the punchline of the deliriously funny existential ruminations that Mark Rylance...and the Midwestern folk-bard Louis Jenkins have fashioned from Jenkins' poetry. It's a compact, unpretentious play...The sentiment may be melancholic, but Rylance's drawled delivery is a howl. His affect is a vacant deadpan, over the trees and far away. The accent itself is pure Midwestern music -- flat as that frozen lake and high as the wind...Some wonderful theatrical effects are executed during the show's many blackout scenes...And the show ends with a coup de theatre that is pure surreal pleasure. But it's Jenkins' poetry -- that laconic voice, extending provocative thoughts and unexpected insights -- that hangs in the air at the end of the show.

Frank Scheck, The Hollywood Reporter: The idea of ice fishing as a metaphor for life doesn't seem to hold much theatrical promise. But Mark Rylance takes the idea and runs with it in his play co-written with Minnesota poet Louis Jenkins...Featuring a hilarious deadpan performance by the three-time Tony winner...Nice Fish is a great catch...The 95-minute absurdist play features numerous short scenes punctuated by blackouts and is largely composed of extracts from Jenkins' droll poems...Nice Fish is certainly disjointed and rambling, and its slow pace could provoke irritation among the less patient. But its whimsical observational humor is consistently amusing, and the performers deliver the poetry with unforced naturalness. All are excellent, but it's Rylance who enchants.

David Cote, Time Out NY: Mark Rylance is clearly alert to the levels in his silly yet engaging resetting of text by Minnesota poet Louis Jenkins. Nice Fish is a whimsical, ultimately resonant portrait of lost souls waiting to hook or be hooked...It's all vaguely Waiting for Godot-ish, and Jenkins makes a modest bid as a flyover-state Samuel Beckett. Generally, though, the ultimate lure is a chance to see a great actor like Rylance cutting loose.

Robert Kahn, NBC New York: The ice may be groaning on the frozen Minnesota lake where Mark Rylance and Jim Lichtscheidl are mulling life's mysteries, but the dialogue is solid and crisp ... if sometimes as rascally as a sturgeon with zero interest in your bait and tackle...Todd Rosenthal's set design is a marvel of hyper-dramatized perspective...Director Claire van Kampen, a longtime Rylance collaborator clearly having her fun here...I sometimes feel like a hooked trout when I'm in a Rylance audience. I squirm a little at the mercy of his stream-of-consciousness, before finally settling down and accepting the rhythmic cadences-falling for it hook, line and ... well.

Matt Windman, AM New York: The problem with the play is not all that different from anything else built from pre-existing material: the poems, despite their humorous and meditative qualities, do not offer the narrative sustenance or characterization to support a 95-minute piece of theater, leaving it fragmented, uneventful and generally unsatisfying. Rylance, who is a wonderfully mercurial and inventive actor, is full of oddball and gentle expressions, while his companion remains firmly fixated on the activity at hand. Considering their contrasting dynamic and how little occurs, "Nice Fish" is essentially "Waiting for Godot" on a frozen lake.

Jesse Green, Vulture: When Mark Rylance accepted the 2008 Tony Award for his performance in the French farce Boeing-Boeing, and when he accepted again in 2011 for his performance in the English drama Jerusalem, he sidestepped the usual recital of agents and wigmasters in favor of brief prose poems by Louis Jenkins, of Duluth. This was either delightfully or annoyingly odd, depending on your taste for whimsy, and the same taste will probably determine whether you love, enjoy, or merely tolerate Nice Fish...Another good litmus test would be your reaction to A Prairie Home Companion...Nice Fish has the flat, folksy vaudeville quality of that radio show, with its rime of humor and undertow of malaise. But with Rylance bringing his usual brilliance to the proceedings, and with a magical production directed by Claire Van Kampen at St. Ann's Warehouse in Dumbo, the play is clearly aiming for something deeper, and sometimes, despite the thin ice, achieves it.

Jeremy Gerard, Deadline: Jenkins' work tends, like Keillor's monologues abot the fictional Minnesota town, toward stream-of-consciousness musings that begin in a specific moment before spiraling off into morality tales or nonsense, take your pick. Either way, the result is entertainment of an extremely high order: this is the kind of play that gives situation comedy its good name. The most recognizable link between Rudolf Abel and Ron is Rylance's animated eyebrows. Whether playing the unflappable spy who will not betray his country or the freezing fisherman who could be a relation of Samuel Beckett's existential clowns, Rylance's eyebrows convey volumes simply by arching: drawbridge up, drawbridge down. They can indicate bemusement or devilry; fear or placid detachment. He hardly needs to speak.

Robert Hofler, TheWrap: It would be nice to report that "Nice Fish" is worth Rylance's dedication to the theater. The effort resembles a weird hybrid of Samuel Beckett and "Avenue Q" but without the music. There's also no music in Jenkins's poetry, from which this play is adapted...Whatever, "Nice Fish" will not make you want to go out and buy Jenkins's latest collection...Near the end of the play van Kampen pulls so many stunts out of her directorial bag of tricks -- people flying and breaking through the ice, stagehands clearing the set, big fish wiggling -- that she ends up lampooning the material.

Alexis Soloski, The Guardian: If Samuel Beckett were to resurrect just long enough to script a couple of episodes of Prairie Home Companion, the result might resemble Nice Fish, a new play from the poet Louis Jenkins and the actor Mark Rylance, which merges existential dread with genial folksiness...The writing, though intensely charming in its cock-eyed humanity, isn't always theatrical. Some of it is too ornamental, too precious...Claire van Kampen, Rylance's wife, directs with a playful and appealing touch, favoring abrupt blackouts as a mode of comedy and encouraging the actors to attack the material lightly...The whole may not add up to much more than a gently absurdist evocation of mood...Still, there are few greater joys in the contemporary theater than watching Rylance do his wide-eyed, thick-voiced thing.

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