ows_13660388998470Mark Rylance, Tony award- winner and recent OSCAR nominee for Spielberg’s BRIDGE  OF SPIES, has arrived onstage at the American Repertory Theater trailing a list of serious thespian credits among them HAMLET, and THE SEAGULL. He is back at the A. R. T. as playwright and star in a furry, floppy-eared hat, a bemused expression, and a whale of a performance in NICE FISH. I fell hook, line, and sinker for Mark Rylance as a befuddled, would-be fisherman catching meaning in a frozen world.

This is not so much a play as a collage drawn from the prose poems of Louis Jenkins which Rylance helped shape for the stage. Sometimes the poems are left whole and sometimes they are distributed in pieces amongst five characters, with the poet himself playing Wayne, the biggest fisherman of all. As the new testament tells it, “In the beginning was ‘the word.'” Indeed, NICE FISH opens in darkness with a “voice of god” delivering an excerpt from Jenkins’ poem “The Ice Fisherman”:

   Here is a man going jiggidy-jigjig
   in a black hole. Depth and the current are
   of only incidental interest to him. He's after
   something big, something down there that is pure
   need, something that, had it the wherewithal,
   would swallow him whole.

Thus we understand the landscape we are entering: a gaping maw we hope to devour before it devours us. The lights come up and we come upon two Godot-esque figures Ron (Rylance) and Erik (Jim Lichtscheidl) on the vast frozen surface of Lake Superior in Minnesota, soon fishing through a hole in the ice, lights onshore beyond, stars appearing later above, and chilly dark depths always beneath. The universe is their oyster and pearls of wisdom are everywhere if they remain tethered in the void. Or so they hope. The through line is this translucent body of Jenkins prose poems, conversational observations that when disconnected from their everyday associations, suddenly become shimmering epiphanies.

So not a lot “literally” happens in the course of 90 minutes. The duo listen to the radio, lose track of time– watches and cell phones–wrangle with a by-the-book Department of Natural Resources officer (Bob Davis) over the lack of a fishing license, are happened upon by a charmingly prolix woman in a lime green crinoline named “Flo” (Kayli Carter) who shakes things up a bit. But mostly they chat. Erik and Ron have the flat inflection of the midwest, which is given particular comic buoyancy by Rylance’s sweet, hilarious delivery. “Sometimes we drive nails with a frozen banana,” he deadpans.”There’s no end to the fun.”

In fact, there is a good deal of fun in many isolated moments, but the script’s lack of narrative momentum bogs things down. We feel the creators reaching for the connective tissue that would hold this meditation on meaning more satisfyingly together and move it along as a theatrical piece. It’s also a challenge for the director/composer and Rylance’s wife Claire van Kampen who must orchestrate these existential comings and goings in a cohesive way. Sets, costumes, lighting, and sound design are just right.

Are the words enough? Almost. Jenkins’ poems remain transparent portals from the mundane to the universal; he taps his native Minnesotan roots and distills “reticence tantamount to sagacity.” The poems are marked by a tender appreciation for life’s absurdities, and the eloquence to capture in simple words and dazzling syntax whatever can be gleaned.

The last scene is priceless; it’s a mini play and comedic gem that finds Erik and Ron now an elderly couple, with Ron in a woman’s slip. They teeter about wondering aloud what it all means,  and compare life to a movie they’ve just seen. “I didn’t get it,” Ron says as they wobble upstage toward the final curtain. We all burst out laughing. We know we’re all just making a stab at it,  just casting a line in the dark. And there is comfort in knowing we are all in this vast space– at least in this theater for one night–together.

NICE FISH is a good catch at Harvard’s American Repertory Theater through Feb. 7!