'Nice Fish' about much more than ice fishing

Erik (Jim Lichtscheidl) and Ron (Mark Rylance) get down to the serious business of ice-fishing in "Nice Fish" at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.
Courtesy Guthrie Theater, photo by Richard Termine

Duluth poet Louis Jenkins never dreamed he'd be in theater. Now he's found himself working at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis with Mark Rylance, an internationally renowned British actor, in a world premiere production based on Jenkins' work.

The play, "Nice Fish," grew out of Jenkins' prose poem collection of the same name. On the surface, it's about ice fishing. But Jenkins and Rylance dip lines into much deeper waters than are found on any Minnesota lake.

Rylance is a Broadway star and has won two Tony Awards. He's huge on London's West End, in addition to his fame as the first artistic director of the reconstructed Globe Theater, which does "original practices" productions of Shakespeare plays -- without lights, amplification or female actors.

Rylance also is no stranger to the Guthrie stage. He was there twice with the Globe, and then came back to perform the lead role in Robert Bly's adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's "Peer Gynt" five years ago.

It was through a Bly-edited poetry anthology that Rylance discovered the work of Louis Jenkins. He was so impressed, he read one of Jenkins' prose poems as his acceptance speech when he won his first Tony Award.

"They published it in the Sunday Times, the Times in London and in other newspapers," Rylance said. "And Louis had phone calls the next morning from reporters like yourself saying, 'What do you think of this?' And that was the first he had heard of me, and of his poems being read out loud."

Actually, Jenkins said, he did know Rylance because he had seen the actor in "Peer Gynt" at the Guthrie. They began exchanging emails, and eventually Rylance proposed they create a play by linking some of Jenkins' poems with dialog he would write.

"When he first suggested it I thought, 'Well, that's not going to work,'" Jenkins laughed.

Louis Jenkins
Duluth poet Louis Jenkins says when Mark Rylance first suggested making a play out of his 1996 collection "Nice Fish" he didn't think it would work. Now he's a convert.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

That was five years ago, and Jenkins is now a believer. He won a Minnesota Book Award in 1995 for "Nice Fish." Many of those pieces appear in their entirety in the stage adaptation -- delivered by the main characters, ice anglers Ron and Erik, and a number of others who turn up.

In one scene, Ron and Erik are sitting in their shack on the last day of the season, when they're confronted by a Department of Natural Resources conservation officer. Ron doesn't have a fishing license, and the two friends try to cajole the officer into ignoring the infraction.

The more the friends try to placate the officer, the angrier he becomes. At one point he reels off the exact costs and codes of different kinds of licenses, and trout and walleye stamps. The long list leaves the anglers' heads spinning.

"OK, we'll take a non-resident 72-hour individual license for him, and I'll have the trout for $10," Erik says to the DNR officer.

"Can I have some fries with that?" Ron asks with an innocent smile on his face.

The DNR officer is not amused. And that's when a strange thing occurs. The officer turns to the audience and speaks his thoughts with remarkable poetic eloquence.

"Because of my extraordinary correctness and sensitivity of late, I have been elevated to the status of temporary minor saint (secular.) The position comes with a commendation praising my -- quote -- uncharacteristic reticence tantamount to sagacity -- end quote. This means that my entire being is now suffused with a pale radiance, somewhat like the light from a small fluorescent bulb, like the kind on a kitchen range perhaps only not quite so bright. And instead of walking, I now float at a height of three inches from the ground."

That is one of Jenkins' poems. It's the kind of dryly humorous observation of people and things that led Mark Rylance to fall in love with Louis Jenkins' work.

"He's an absolute delight," said Rylance. "A proper bear of a poet."

Mark Rylance
Tony Award-winning actor Mark Rylance combined his skills as a renowned Shakespearean actor and director with Louis Jenkins' prose poems to create "Nice Fish," a play about ice fishing and many other things.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

"I am excited by the whole thing," said Jenkins. "It is so unlikely a thing to happen to me, for me to be involved in theater."

Ice fishing skeptics might roll their eyes at claims that this sport meets human needs in a primeval, philosophical and poetic way. Both Jenkins and Rylance acknowledge they have had their own moments of doubt, but then talk about the profound experience of sitting in silence, in the cold, in a perilous position out on the ice. Rylance calls it pregnant with possibility, and he wants "Nice Fish" audiences to experience that sense, too.

"I hope, like with Louis's poems, they'll see the beauty in mundane things," Rylance said. "That a lot of things in the people around them and in the nature around them, which they took for granted, they'll see are actually very amusing or very beautiful."

Rylance recalled a past visit to Minnesota on Christmas Eve, when he walked out onto a frozen lake and met a man who was ice-fishing. The man was divorced, and as part of the divorce settlement he agreed that his children would always spend that day with their mother. In turn, he always spent Christmas Eve ice-fishing alone, just thinking. It was beautiful, said Rylance. Lonely and sad, but beautiful.

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