Nice Fish: The Show That Defies Definition

Nice Fish eludes classification. The latest Guthrie Theater production is the brainchild of two-time Tony Award-winning British actor Mark Rylance and Minnesota poet Louis Jenkins (inspiration and friend to fellow Minnesota wordsmiths Robert Bly and Garrison Keillor). Put as simply as possible, Nice Fish is the story of Erik (Jim Lichtscheidl) and Ron (Rylance), two friends who have taken the day to go ice fishing in northern Minnesota. Both are looking for an escape—from domesticity, reality, responsibility, limitations—and both find it out on the ice.

Erik (Jim Lichtscheidl) and Ron (Mark Rylance);
photo by Richard Termine

The men reach their respective breakthroughs after encounters with the Norse goddess of eternal youth, Freya (who goes by Flo, and is played by Emily Swallow of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Guthrie fame), and her captors, two giant brothers named Wayne (Chris Carlson) and Wainwright (Tyson Forbes). Dialogue, poetry, monologues, songs, and observations guide the characters from points A to Z and beyond, and create a collage of insight and humor that is unexpected and refreshing, profound and touching.

But such a basic description does the production injustice. To truly capture the heart and poignancy of Nice Fish (or at least attempt to do so), one must peel back the layers, emotions, and truths stitched together in this artistic feat.

Rylance and Jenkins began collaborating on the work in 2008 following Rylance’s first Tony Award win and acceptance speech. Instead of rattling off a laundry list of names to thank, Rylance quoted one of Jenkins’s poems. The two were introduced shortly after through their mutual friends Margot McLead and her husband, James Hillman, and soon Nice Fish was born.

If using poems to form the structure of a play seems wonky, it’s because it is. “My first thought was, ‘This isn’t going to work,’” says Jenkins in his contributor’s note in the show’s program. But for whatever reason—a.k.a. Rylance’s vast acting experience and talent, Jenkins’s relatable yet insightful prose, and a superb cast—it does. Just as lyrics taken out of the context of their song may read as awkward and incomplete, so too would much of the poetry used as speeches in Nice Fish. Yet delivered as a whole and given life through the cadence, nuance, and passion of the actors presenting them, each piece works together to evoke an unforgettable and altogether unique theater experience.

It’s hard to say whether the play would translate as well in the hands of other actors. Undersell it and you risk losing the insights and metaphors. Exaggerate the Norse mythology and it becomes weird and discombobulated. Even the DNR officer (played by the ever-capable Bob Davis) needs to strike a balance between obnoxious earnestness and relatable tenacity. It’s a tall order, and yet these six fulfill it with grace and heartfelt authenticity.

Nice Fish is part Coen brothers dark humor and psychological musings, part Mel Brooks quick-witted knee-slap humor (re: miniature flying snowmobiles, Wayne’s impressive mullet, and Ron and Erik breaking character to acknowledge the stage hands assisting them during one of the scenes), and part Waiting for Godot. Every belly laugh is balanced with a heart-tugging revelation; every bizarre sci-fi tangent with a simple yet impactful truth. Nice Fish is all things while being no one thing in particular—it is poetry and fantasy, tragedy and comedy. It is as significant as it is silly, altogether inexplicable and utterly beautiful.

Nice Fish
Through May 18
Guthrie Theater, 818 S. Second St., Mpls.