The theater lights come up on a tiny puppet figure in the vast expanse of stage. A little man casts out a line. He is ice fishing. The audience strains to see the small figure, breath held, enraptured in the little puppet man. His silhouette against the snowy expanse expresses a common theme of humanity; we are so small against the world.
Nice Fish, at the Guthrie in April-May of 2013 was the best theatrical surprise of 2013, a jaunty show at a prestigious venue written by Duluth poet Louis Jenkins and Tony award-winning director/actor Mark Rylance. One expects a certain cheeky humor (and puppets!) at Open Eye Theater, Bedlam Theater, the Southern Theater, Bryant Lake Bowl - but the Guthrie!? BRAVO! to the Guthrie for taking a risk on a show that could be seen as a regional play rather than true ingénue. What’s more is that a story about two guys ice fishing could be so completely compelling.
Simplicity/Profundity of the Present Moment
Much of the stage action occurs around two men and their gear sitting at a fishing hole. They cast a line, eat lunch, a cell phone is accidently dropped into the fishing hole. A DNR officer busts them for having an expired fishing license.
Nice Fish captured the profundity of simplicity. This show was about everything and nothing in the same moment. Most of life consists of micro adjustments and micro observations, neither wonderful nor terrible. Nice Fish captured the everything/nothing paradigm of life, which is similar to the tragic/comic nature of clown life, or bodhisattva life, or celebrating the imperfections of humanity, or whatever you want to call it.
Written in part by a nationally renowned poet, it makes a certain sense that the character dialogue is sparse. I relished the simplicity and profundity of gesture and physical nuance, rather than the tiresome reliance on words words words. This show was thrillingly accessible, not too academic, and therefore brilliantly profound. Lead actors Mark Rylance and Jim Lichtscheidl were so powerful because they could transmit a whole cadre of emotion in a singular gesture or look.
Rylance’s character is the perfect clown/underdog. Ron wants to be valued by his fellow fisherman Erik, which would be awkward as a verbal statement, but as a longing look, we completely understand the silent language between men. The profound simplicity within the story delivery was part of why this show was a "best of."
Todd Rosenthal delivered a truly delightful set design in both content and scale. At moments I felt like I had been dropped into a model train set – but on a frozen lake.
In an evening ice fishing scene, miniature ice huts lit up on the stage horizon while remote control pickup trucks drove across the upstage tundra. There was a pink yard flamingo sculpted to the inside of the sauna/ice hut door alongside a Tropicana poster. An upstage scrim exactly captured the unpredictable changes in weather as we watched a storm sail in, and the scrim darken with heaviness. Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lighting design was spectacular. I couldn’t perceive the changes as they happened, just that they had occurred.
At the top of the show, there were a series of stop-motion-type blackouts. We saw "snapshots" of the characters and their gear being blown about by a fierce wind. Coolers go flying, a warming tent topples over, one fisherman is seemingly lifted by a gust. The wind sequence had a vaudevillian comedy to it. I thought I could see Assistant Director Jon Ferguson’s everyman, clownish influence in the piece, and I was delighted.
Even the last line is playful: "I didn't get it, honey, did you?" EVERYONE gets that line. This line summed up the whole experience, playful and irreverent and very very imperfectly human.
There was a group of older men and their wives sitting directly behind us. I LOVED listening to their laughter, their connection to the play. Of course they enjoyed it! It’s a play about two old men ice fishing, and their delight and surprise was part of my enjoyment. I commend the Guthrie for taking a risk and trusting that audiences would connect, laugh, share and delight together.
As I settled into my seat after intermission, I felt connected to the imperfections of humanity. Perhaps the humor of Act I had opened me up, or the delight at a puppet sensibility woven in to the set design. My favorite theater shows tend to have cheeky characters, are not overly polished, and celebrate the folly of being human. Nice Fish delivered a nice surprise on all accounts.