Performance #24: Just Keep Swimming

Last week we saw a performance of Nice Fish, a play written by Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins. The play is almost entirely made up of poems by Jenkins, but the smaller scenes and connecting lines were written by Mark Rylance. Louis Jenkins writes really beautiful long-form prose poetry, which lacks form or frames like classical poetry. Because of this style, it was easier for Rylance and Jenkins to develop these poems into monologues and scenes. Jenkins’s writing style, as far as I can tell, is already very conversational. I was able to read about the poetry and the play before I saw the play, so I came into the show looking for how they used poetry, because I thought it might be a lot more conceptual than it was.

This morning we had a Q&A session with one of the actors, Jim Lichtscheidl (gesundheit!), who played Erik. He spoke to us a little bit about the development of this show and the rehearsal process. Turns out this play has been changing and developing throughout its entire process, and it began as an incredibly different play than it was now. I didn’t realize how much of a collaborative process this play had been, although not enough to be labeled a collaborative or devised piece of theatre. He also spoke about what it’s like to work with a star like Mark Rylance, and how you keep the onstage chemistry true to the characters and not about the actor on stage. Mark Rylance is known for a tick named “downstaging,” which means that he will repeatedly return to the front of the stage to make connections with the audience rather than the other actors on stage. Mr. Lichtscheidl spoke somewhat affectionately of this, but did say that he had reminded him of it many times. Although Rylance does have an incredible natural magnetic connection with audiences, he does somewhat owe it to his scene partners to be present on stage for at least a part of the scene. This never seemed gimmicky or pretentious, but an honest connection to the audience. Rylance really does have this strange openness with the audience that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before, it’s so comfortable and familiar feeling.


If you’ve ever tuned in to A Prairie Home Companion radio show, you’ll be familiar to the Mid-Western humour that the host Garrison Keeler brings to his writing. This was the same dry humor in Nice Fish, which was a really funny show filled with a lot of dropped jokes. My definition of a dropped joke is just a delivered joke that fails to receive a reaction or laugh from the joke recipient. Usually the silent reaction will be funnier than the actual joke. Lichtscheidl made the comparison from Mid-Western humor to British humor, which I’d never thought about before. Both cultures have a very dry and sardonic humor that works in very quiet quips and a stony response to bad jokes. I never would’ve thought Minnesotans and Londoners would’ve had the same humor, but hey, the world works in funny ways.

Lichtscheidl also spoke about his career as an actor, and his own definition of success. He’s been based at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, Minnesota for almost twenty years, and has been constantly working in some show or another. This, to me, was really awesome to hear about, because I’ve been realizing that I don’t think I’ll ever want that fame that a lot of young actors seek. If I could continuously have employment in a show or theatre project, I would be much happier because I’d be constantly working. He made three really good points: Know your goals, take note of those you enjoy working with, and gave an encouragement to live our lives. Theatre represents life, so you should experience it and garner stories to help you become a better actor. Take time to travel and experience things outside of our small theatre world, because there are so many stories that haven’t been told. It was really inspiring to hear this from an extremely relatable point of view.

Nice Fish is a play about two old college buddies, Ron (Mark Rylance) and Erik (Jim Lichtscheidl) who go ice fishing on a lake in Minnesota. Throughout the day (?) they talk about their lives, the world, and even get a chance to catch a sauna. A young woman, Flo, finds them and invites them to dinner with her grandpa Wayne who is a spearfish hunter. Between these scenes a strict park ranger pops in and out to make appearances. It’s funny how easily the play is summarized, similar to Waiting for Godot, because all of the action happens in the text.

This was quite an absurdist piece of theatre, and actually, not a lot of people in my class liked it. A literature term that has bled its way into my theatre terms is Reader Response Theory. To summarize, RRT, it is the natural projection of our own lives and experiences onto stories, performances, films, etc. For example, whenever I watch King Lear, I always project the plot line of A Thousand Acres (a book spinoff) onto the sisters. Can we ever go and see a show or movie and never be effected by your own projections or sub-conscious connections? How could a show completely numb us to the point of forgetting our own experiences and purely experiencing the performance? Anyway, to steer away from that black hole of a discussion, I’ll move on to my next point. Nice Fish was a very open ended play, so many of my peers felt like they had to create their own meaning from the performance. I don’t think Nice Fish is about consciously making a meaning, but looking at what feeling you’re left with in that moment of confusion, and discuss those remaining thoughts with yourself.

Nice Fish is a very existentialist play about people examining the choices in the lives, how things may have gone differently, and how to move on from here. The reason I couldn’t relate to No Man’s Land was because the internal conflict was for a specified age group, but I felt extremely connected to the internal conflict in this show because of its “ageless existentialism.” (term coined by Lichtscheidl) Although, even then I slightly disagree with that term. I agree that it was a universal existentialism, but there was definitely a difference in reactions to situations. The existentialism of the young is not knowing what to do, but the existentialism of the old is not knowing what you should’ve done, and the possibilities that could’ve sprung from those choices. This was the most moving part of the show for me, because it was so relevant and beautifully performed.  The young person’s existentialism was seen in a much more positive view, from the voice of Flo. Flo is Spring, youth, and all things that seep beauty, but in human form. Usually existentialism has a brooding dark cloud hanging over it, but Flo represents the endless possibilities of youth. Although Flo and Wayne both reminded me of spirits from A Christmas Carol (See? Reader’s Response Theory). Flo is very similar to the first spirit, the spirit of Christmas past, who is ageless and somewhat prophetic. Wayne, Flo’s grandpa, is the spirit of Christmas present- he is jolly, old, and full of vague metaphors. Ron and Erik are really the main philosophers of the show, and spend most of the show dreaming of their pasts.

There was also this constant underlying fear of legacy in this play, although I saw it mostly in Erik’s monologues. Due to the choices you’ve made, what will you leave for others and how will they remember you? He has one monologue where he talks about a time when he started stealing mail from his mail route, and the small sense of control that he felt over these minute decisions. He’s now the post office guy, the guy with hundreds of letters in his attic. But without this decision he wouldn’t be the same man. Would people remember him if he hadn’t committed those extremely odd crimes? Perhaps not. Towards the end of the play the cast sang a song with the repeated lyrics “remember me.” I can’t help but think that Ron and Erik are terrified of being forgotten, I mean, who isn’t? It’s a dark tunnel to travel down, but I guarantee some really interesting pictures of your life without you in it, so maybe take a look.

Left to Right: Erik, Flo, Ron, and Wayne

There was this strange mysticism that hovered over this performance, a feeling that I was watching a folktale or a legend. There were very small puppets that were used throughout the show that added to the myth-like sensation of the show. They were used to force perspective for how far away the fishermen were from town, but they were also just s’darn cute. There was Flo’s dark house (house kept on frozen lakes for storage, heating, etc) and sometimes we watched Flo (the puppet) staring over the lake, or reading Moby Dick on her couch. It was so cool to have that tiny little speechless scene happening while the monologues by Ron and Erik continued in front. As I said before about Wayne and Flo, they were very mystical characters. A more literal comparison than A Christmas Carol is Father Winter and Spring-or youth, in my opinion. It was so sweet watching Ron look at Flo, because you could tell he was just in awe of her radiance. He was totally enamored with her, and it never felt creepy or weird, because it wasn’t about that, it was like watching the sun.  Today our speaker pointed out how every character was a season: Ron: summer, Erik: fall, Wayne: winter, and Flo: spring. The park ranger also had these odd mythical elements. In his main soliloquy he speaks about being chosen by God to be a park ranger, and goes on to allude that he may be an angel? I don’t quite remember this part, and I wasn’t able to get my hands on the script yet. Even the use of poetry makes this play more ethereal and absurdist even though it’s dealing with very mundane characters and situations.

At the end of the play, Ron and Erik have a progression into death, where they become an elderly couple shuffling off the stage. Also, the physical work for this piece was amazing, it’s so nice to see old people not played in a slapstick manner.  The scene followed the progression of life, and ended with the couple reaching up and grabbing two huge fishing hooks and being reeled up into the sky. This opened a whole new can of worms (pun intended) for us to ponder. Do we await death like a fisherman waiting for a fish, or are we caught off guard and hooked without time to figure out if we’ve lived a “shelf-worthy” life or not? Someone in class brought up the really good theory that this scene was displaying the theory that we all “live under the layer of ice.” I can’t quite say what the ice would be in our world, but that sure sounded like a half-decent philosophical theory to me. They weren’t scared of the hooks, when they reached up it seemed almost perfunctory, and they patiently awaited being pulled up. It was such a graceful ascension, and left me very confused. It was one of those endings where you’re not supposed to be happy or be sad, you’re just supposed to “be.” Which sounds like a big ol’ hunk of malarkey, I know.

Well, what a show this was. I’m really thankful to Jim Lichtscheidl for coming and talking to us today, because it really helped me when I sat down to write this. This was one of my top five shows that I’ve seen this semester, definitely. It was such a comfortable show, and I think that’s partially because it was all American actors, so it felt very nostalgic to be seeing an all American cast.



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