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BWW REVIEW: A.R.T. Hooks Mark Rylance's NICE FISH Before NYC Run

By Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins, drawn from the words of Louis Jenkins; directed by Claire van Kampen; scenic design, Todd Rosenthal; costume design, Ilona Somogyi; lighting design, Japhy Weidman; sound design, Scott W. Edwards; composer, Claire van Kampen; production stage manager, Evangeline Rose Whitlock

Cast in Alphabetical Order:

Flo, Kayli Carter; The DNR Man, Bob Davis; Wayne, Louis Jenkins; Erik, Jim Lichtscheidl; Ron, Mark Rylance

Performances and Tickets:

Now through February 7, American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge, Mass.; tickets start at $25 and are available online at www.AmericanRepertoryTheater.org or by calling the Box Office at 617-547-8300. NICE FISH moves to St. Ann's Warehouse in NYC February 14 - March 27.

If the homespun humor and quirky philosophizing that comes to you live from Lake Woebegone via A Prairie Home Companion warms you up on a cold winter's night, then NICE FISH is your cup of cocoa. The brainchild of Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins, based on Jenkins' offbeat down home prose poems written over the course of 50 years, NICE FISH is a somewhat surrealistic tale of those hearty folk who search for solace on the frozen lakes of Minnesota and spiritual solitude in the murky depths of their own minds.

We first meet Erik (Jim Lichtscheidl) and Ron (Mark Rylance) as they drill holes and set up camp on a vast stretch of windswept ice far away from shore. Erik, the stoic, silent type, seems bent on hooking the elusive "big one" before the ice gives way to the spring thaw. Ron, garrulous to the point of irritating, apparently has no interest in fishing and is only there to spend time with his bro. Over the course of one day and night, they contemplate life, death, love, and the barren landscape that lends itself to the celebration of mundane rituals that help the locals pass the time.

As hours tick by with barely a nibble, Erik and Ron are greeted by the DNR Man (Bob Davis), an officious sort who prides himself on enforcing the convoluted licensing codes that could drive the sanest of men crazy. Later he makes a return visit as some sort of hallucinatory merman impervious to the lake's frigid cold.

Dusk brings a visit from Flo (Kayli Carter), an artist/photographer encamped in a distant ice house replete with illuminated palm tree, coal stove and sauna. While her musings seem superfluous and out of place in this male-driven story, she serves as a catalyst for romantic dreams and feelings of regret, a sort of ethereal symbol of what all men want but most never have.

Finally there is Wayne (Louis Jenkins), a white-bearded Santa Claus of a man who seems to have been blown in by the blizzard that all but destroys Erik and Ron's encampment. Tempered by his many years of seeing seasons come and go, he isn't rattled by life's crises anymore. He exhorts Erik and Ron to chill and find perspective in the stars.

It's surprising how well Jenkins' various poems string together to create a story arc in NICE FISH. While there is no real plot, there is a sense of existential movement for Erik and Ron, resulting in a joyful and unexpected epiphany. Their time on the ice is marked by a mere 24 hours, but their evolution could easily have taken a lifetime.

The cast and creative team are all on the same page in NICE FISH, integrating witty and endearing performances with a set that is as clever as it is wry. Miniature props and shadow puppets create the illusion of distance and isolation that feed the actors' sense of melancholy. Lighting and special effects suggest an other-worldliness that transcends place and time. Combining seemingly meaningless daily activities with a frozen landscape of expansive white ice and steely blue sky, NICE FISH plumbs the surreal depths of frostbitten minds.

There's a quiet absurdity to NICE FISH that will lure you in if you let it. Go ahead. Take the bait and be reeled in by these quirky souls who have been out in the cold a wee bit too long.

PHOTOS BY EVGENIA ELISEEVA: Mark Rylance as Ron; Mark Rylance and Jim Lichtscheidl as Erik; Mark Rylance and Bob Davis as the DNR Man; Jim Lichtscheidl and Mark Rylance


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