‘Nice Fish’ Questions the Meaning of Life Through Ice Fishing


Courtesy of Teddy Wolff

Mark Rylance and Bob Davis perform in the American Repertory Theater’s new production of “Nice Fish”.

Joseph Myers, Theater & Books Editor

Between outlandish comedy, existential ponderings and an innovative set, “Nice Fish” has something to reel you in. Set on a frozen lake in Minnesota, the play follows Ron, a distractible, inept fisherman played by Academy Award-winning actor Mark Rylance, and Wayne, a skilled and dedicated fisherman played by Louis Jenkins but played by Raye Birk at this performance, as they set out on their last fishing trip of the season.

The script was co-written by the stars of the show, Rylance and Jenkins, and is based on Jenkins’ poetry. The play is less of a coherent plot told by a progression of scenes, and rather takes to a series of distantly related vignettes. Some scenes are brilliantly wise and comical, while others are rather dull, but both are necessary for balance — the more mundane vignettes makes the outstanding ones shine even brighter.

The script begins with conversational musings and an uninteresting yet realistic dialogue, in which they talk about very little — stylistically somewhere in between “Seinfeld” and mumblecore. Halfway through the play, the trivial dialogue transforms into weighty life questions, pondering the lack of direction in Ron and Wayne’s life, the human condition and the deeper meaning behind catching a nice fish.

The set is fairly minimal: a sloped frozen lake with a small dollhouse-like cabin far stage left. What makes the set remarkable is its manipulation. The play begins with a Hot Wheels-like car driving down the sloped road, shining two tiny headlights into the audience. Proportions are warped by the puppet-sized trap doors in the stage and the disproportionate set pieces. The set plays with logic and space to create a surreal environment, suspending belief for the audience.

Rylance and Birk worked tremendously together to create a thoughtful comedy. The characters have a beautiful chemistry that plays off both camaraderie and conflict. Rylance particularly excels in depicting a simple-minded yet downcast character in a both believable and heightened way. Kayli Carter, who plays Flo, contrasts the two beautifully. Flo is a sweet and quirky young woman who is suspected of having dissociative identity disorder and helps Ron and Wayne learn more about themselves than they ever would have imagined. She initially appears to fulfill the manic pixie dream girl trope, but factor in her mental health, and she becomes a complex voice. Carter plays this larger-than-life character with both honesty and sincerity, despite the play’s self-referential nature. She does not comment on the character or the wackiness of the show, but simply embodies the character, which leads to a humorous and introspective experience.  

“Nice Fish” at first seems slow and dry, but crescendos into a subdued yet outrageous surreal comedy that forces you to set aside all precepts of reality to ultimately understand reality. The highs greatly outweigh the lows, and once you get past the exposition, the depiction of an augmented reality is ultimately satisfying.

“Nice Fish” is playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse, 45 Water St., Dumbo Brooklyn, until March 27.

Email Joseph Myers at [email protected].