Mark Rylance in Nice Fish, directed by Claire van Kampen, at the American Repertory Theater.
Mark Rylance in Nice Fish, directed by Claire van Kampen, at the American Repertory Theater.
(© Evgenia Eliseeva)

Playwright and actor Mark Rylance has turned the work of Minnesota-based poet Louis Jenkins into a 95-minute presentation at the A.R.T. in Nice Fish. Though there is little in the way of plot or cohesion, the performance is not without considerable charm for its evocative language, especially with Rylance leading the cast.

The play starts out on a frozen lake in Minnesota where two friends have settled in for a long day of ice fishing. Despite the wide and nearly empty expanse of space, the men have staked out a cozy corner of their own, equipped with paraphernalia of modern campers: folding chairs, lanterns, beer coolers, and tents, as if outfitted for the expedition by Home Depot and the local supermarket.

Erik (Jim Lichtscheidl) is the wiser fisherman, out for a buddy experience with his friend, Ron (Rylance), who is decked out in bright orange, Artic-like attire, mittens, and a hat with floppy ear muffs (costumes by Ilona Somogyi). Ron tries to drill a hole with a hand tool while Erik pulls out his mechanical drill, which shrieks through the quiet of the terrain. The pair discourses on the minutiae of fishing; Ron loses his cell phone into the water beneath the ice pack. Gradually, and almost sneakily, the subjects slide into the larger questions of life: Who are we? Where are we? What is the meaning of our existence? All of these inquiries are disguised beneath seemingly ordinary discourse, excerpted from the Jenkins' canon. The short scenes are divided by blackouts but there's also a sense that their order could have been reversed to no ill effect.

A string of visitors intrudes upon this peaceful scene, led by an officious state officer (billed as "The DNR Man" and played by Bob Davis), demanding proof that they have purchased fishing licenses. In a soliloquy worthy of the Theater of the Absurd, The DNR Man reels off the rules, complete with fees and fines for misdemeanors that could be set to music as a rap song. Next to arrive is Flo (Kayli Carter), teenybopper wearing a party dress and a light, furry jacket, as if she's off to the prom rather than a day in the frosty outdoors. Despite adding her non sequiturs to the discussion, however, she is never identified nor is her relationship to Ron and Erik explained — but no matter. Last to enter is Wayne (played by Louis Jenkins, the poet), the kindly elder statesman of ice fishing, to change the tone from prosaic to cosmic as the light fades from day to dusk to night.

The two main characters undergo a transformation that takes the viewer from Lake Wobegon territory into a more terrifying universe, reminiscent of the malevolent landscape of Waiting for Godot. Rylance plays Ron with a straightforward delivery of whatever's on his mind, as if all of the character's inner life thoughts are revealed in his speeches. Yet the observant viewer will note the oblique slant of his eyes betraying the change that's to come. It's a complex layered portrayal of an everyman, far different from any of Rylance's previous performances. The five actors form an appealing ensemble, but one that, as scripted, does not bother to understand what the other is saying.

Under the sympathetic direction of Claire van Kampen, Rylance's wife and the show's composer, the transition from observations of daily life to fantasy is carefully paced. Scenic designer Todd Rosenthal and lighting designer Japhy Weideman provide visual images to emphasize the isolation of the human figures within the expanse of earth and sky that are often stunning in their realization. Not the least of the special effects is the "nice fish" caught near the end.

In the end, the central metaphor of the play might be the passage of a single day from dawn to evening, mirroring the arc of life, with all its mystery and inexplicable turnings intact. While there are no familiar hooks such as character progression or the discernable plot, the actors and the surprising turn of events suffice to keep the audience engaged, delivering a catch you don't necessarily want to release.