Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

Nice Fish
American Repertory Theater
Review by Nancy Grossman

Jim Lichtscheidl and Mark Rylance
Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva
Fresh off the success of Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812, the American Repertory Theater transitions from the cold, snowy climes of Moscow to the frozen, snowy climes of Minnesota. Set on a lake at the end of ice-fishing season, Nice Fish is a reflection of its location and two friends who seek answers to life's philosophical questions as they pass time waiting to catch something big. To craft the play composed of the prose poems of Louis Jenkins, two-time Tony Award-winning actor Mark Rylance collaborated with Minnesota-based poet Jenkins and director/composer Claire van Kampen. Marked by top shelf acting, quirky characters, original music, and an atmospheric soundscape, Nice Fish is a total entertainment package in a league of its own.

Rather than try to describe or explain what is deliciously indescribable, suffice it to say that Nice Fish is more like the best poetry reading you've ever heard and less like a linear play with a traditional structure. The conversational tone of Jenkins' writing makes it adaptable to speech, recited as monologue or sometimes shared as dialogue. Each poem opens a window into the soul of the speaker and highlights what that character is grappling with. Middle-aged Erik (Jim Lichtscheidl) and Ron (Rylance) are out on the ice in the waning days of winter, searching for something to fill an existential need. They don't seem to know what it is, but they go back out there every year. The implication is that nature is an essential ingredient, that it somehow fuels them.

The visual and aural components of the production enable the audience to feel immersed in the frozen world of Nice Fish. Scenic designer Todd Rosenthal covers the surface of the raked stage with a textured sheet of white and uses miniature figures upstage for a tree line, a truck on a distant road, and a whimsical fishing hut that even has smoke coming out of its chimney. Ron is decked out in hunter orange coveralls, an orange parka, and a trapper hat with ear-flaps, and Erik stays toasty in a bulky down parka and nylon pants, courtesy of costume designer Ilona Somogyi. Lighting designer Japhy Weideman uses the backdrop as a palette of colors for the sky, starting as the crisp blue of day, turning into the fiery coral of sunset, and ending with the twinkling star-speckled indigo of night. Most evocative are the sounds (designer Scott W. Edwards) of the howling wind and the cracking, shifting ice.

Director van Kampen's staging uses blackouts between scenes, creating a staccato effect in the flow of the play. It also drives the audience to anticipate who or what will be featured each time the lights come up, and the element of surprise adds to the fun. Suddenly, a new character will appear—the DNR (Department of Natural Resources) Man (the wonderfully deadpan Bob Davis) who follows the letter of the law, or Flo (vibrant Kayli Carter), the lone female who seems destined to represent her gender—and the story alters course. When Wayne (Jenkins, in his acting debut) wanders onto the ice, he possesses a mysterious quality, appearing to be a "fish whisperer" whose presence changes the dynamic. Lichtscheidl gives a solid performance with the demeanor of a guy who takes his fishing more seriously than he takes himself, while Rylance's Ron is a goofy guy for whom the fishing is secondary to the opportunity to be with his buddy and play in the snow. Their chemistry and comic timing are terrific, and kudos to both men for capturing the nuances of the Minnesota patois.

In the midst of a Boston winter that has so far been mild and dry, in stark contrast to the circumstances of a year ago, we can feel smug about the frozen scene playing out on the stage of the Loeb Drama Center. As we suspend our disbelief at the sight of the actors bundled up against the harsh winds of the Great Lakes and take pleasure in the surprises that each scene has to offer, the collective audience plays its part in making the play work simply because we don't know what will happen next. In that way, Nice Fish is a lot like the New England weather.

Nice Fish, performances through February 7, 2016, at American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA; Box Office 617-547-8300 or

Written by Mark Rylance & 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 Weideman; Sound Design, Scott W. Edwards; Composer, Claire van Kampen; Production Stage Manager, Evangeline Rose Whitlock

Cast (in alphabetical order): Kayli Carter, Bob Davis, Louis Jenkins, Jim Lichtscheidl, Mark Rylance