Nice Fish If You Can Catch It

Photo by Teddy Wolff

Photo by Teddy Wolff

I’ve never been ice fishing.  For most people to whom this statement applies, it’s likely an easy and unsuprising personal assessment to make.  After all, who actually goes ice fishing?  But as a person who lived in Minnesota for the majority of my youth and early adulthood, it seems strange in retrospect that I never actually went out onto the ice, with auger in hand (that’s the thing you use to drill into the ice, FYI), hand warmers in pockets, a case or two of cheap beer, and cast my lure into the icy darkness below.  I’ve been regular fishing.  I’ve even caught a few.  But there’s something darker, more stoically existential, dangerous even, about this act of trudging out over frozen water and basically just trusting that there are fish down there. (If you haven’t watched Fishing With John in Maine featuring Willem Dafoe, do yourself a favor and check it out.)  I never went hunting either – maybe I’m just not a very good Minnesotan.

Nice Fish, by Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins, currently playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse through March 27th, takes this activity that most of us have never engaged in and makes it – at least for me – totally, nostalgically, tragically familiar.  How they’ve captured this most esoteric of experiences and are able to demonstrate it on a vast stage in Brooklyn is almost as inexplicable as dropping a plastic colored lure into a hole in the ice and actually catching something, which makes it all the more exciting (albeit more difficult to write about).

The play is drawn from the words of Louis Jenkins, who is a prose poet who lives in Duluth, Minnesota on the banks of Lake Superior.  What is a prose poem, you might ask?  Luckily, there are multiple examples in the program.  This is one:

“And you call yourself a poet!” she said, laughing, walking toward me. It was a woman I recognized, though I couldn’t remember her name. “Here you are on the most beautiful day of autumn… You should be writing a poem.” “It’s a difficult subject to write about, the fall,” I said. “Nevertheless,” she said, “I saw you drinking in the day, the pristine blue sky, the warm sunshine, the brilliant leaves of the maples and the birches rustled slightly by the cool west wind which is the harbinger of winter. I saw how you watched that maple leaf fall. I saw how you picked it up and noted the flame color, touched here and there with bits of gold and green and tiny black spots. I’m sure that you saw in that leaf all the glory and pathos, the joy and heartache of life on earth and yet you never touched pen to paper.” “Actually,” I said, “most of what I write is simply made up, not real at all.” “So…?” she said.

A few things I note about this poem – it’s compact like a vague joke, in that it has a beginning, a middle, and if not an end, a payoff.  It’s heavily ‘written’ and a bit lyrical – Mark Rylance claims he was drawn to Jenkins’ work because he heard it like dialogue, but I’m not sure that I agree (although Rylance has a good bit more experience with heightened text in general, so he’s probably right).  Is it even heightened?  In some ways it’s totally grounded, written in a specific style and intonation.  A more basic and humor-driven mockery of this type of writing might be Jack Handey’s ‘Deep Thoughts,’ which I used to find amusing.

So anyway, even if you were Mark Rylance, if you came to me with a book full of these prose poems and said, “This is going to make a great theater piece,” I probably wouldn’t believe you.  It’s the type of writing that, as a playwright, you’re programmed to position carefully, building up to the poetic indulgence, only allowing such words to emerge in the voice of a character that we must be able to believe would have the capacity for such deep and sudden insight, and then, once insight has been imparted, we clamp back down on the impulse (to write, Oh God to write) because one of the most common critiques of contemporary plays is that ‘the voice of the writer overwhelmed the content.”  Literary passages are considered to be just that – literature, not dramatic text.  I have experienced intriguing challenges to this conceit – Daniel Fish’s A (Radically Condensed and Expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, in which actors are tasked with listening via headphones to audio recordings of David Foster Wallace giving readings of his short fiction and essays and then speaking the text aloud in real time, comes to mind.  But that’s more a case of performance stacked atop literary text, with the performative aspect of ‘trying to listen to an audio recording while at the same time speaking it’ the primary function.  We are not expected to believe, I don’t think, that the actors are actually David Foster Wallace, and within that disconnect we’re able to accept the literary nature of the text itself.  

In Nice Fish, there’s no such stylistic separation between literature and speech.  We are given consistent characters (for the most part) who occasionally say things that feel tangential but not too disruptively so.  There is some but not a lot of dialogue, constructed and inserted by Rylance, to help smooth things out a bit.  It certainly helps that, unlike the previous Jack Handey example, the prose poems are quite rich – full of remorse, bitterly observational, unexpected in their misdirection and often funny. The stage, designed by Todd Rosenthal, is a deep raked oblong space that represents the ice sheet upon which Erik (played by Jim Lichtscheidl) and Ron (Mark Rylance) are fishing.  It suggest a vast sense of scale – upstage we see tiny trees, the edge of the lake, and little model cars occasionally drive past.  Mid-stage are several ice houses, not human-sized (maybe a few feet tall), and downstage are the men sitting on overturned orange Home Depot buckets.  The visual play between the real (guys) and the unreal (fake stage as ice) and the kinda-funny play on scale (one miniature ice house apparently contains a spa and occasionally belches dry ice, which reads as steam and further re-enforces the sense of ‘cold & isolated’) invites us to both observe and be there.

And it’s that sense of being there that is most key, as Jenkins’ text needs to feel like we ourselves are thinking it in order to function as dramatic – it’s a voice in the head, not in character, but us, the meta-us.  The extraordinarily generous, honest, and unadorned performances of the actors further invite us in – we are them, they are us, we are all in this mess together, hoping to catch something, not sure what we’ll do with it if we somehow succeed.  

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