‘Nice Fish’: Small truths revealed on a frozen lake

Jim Lichtscheidl and Mark Rylance in "Nice Fish." Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

Jim Lichtscheidl and Mark Rylance in “Nice Fish.” Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

CAMBRIDGE – The great actors challenge themselves, and Mark Rylance, the winner of multiple Tony and Olivier Awards and currently up for an Oscar for his supporting role in “Bridge of Spies,” has decided that the right challenge at this time of his life is musing about the meaning of life on the last day of the ice fishing season on a frozen Minnesota lake.

The great actors also have the talent and wherewithal to be able to write their own challenges

It was Rylance, the founding artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe in London, who made the decision to adapt the poems of Louis Jenkins into “Nice Fish,” which had its premiere at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis in 2013 and is currently being produced by the American Repertory Theatre at the Loeb Drama Center.

Someone who has performed the title role of “Hamlet” more than 400 times is clearly delighted at playing a character so far removed from the Danish prince and Rylance, who was born in England but spent time growing up in a suburb of Milwaukee, channels his inner Frances McDormand (“Fargo”) in the 95-minute piece.

Mark Rylance and Bob Davis in Nice Fish. Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

Mark Rylance and Bob Davis in Nice Fish. Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

At fist glance, it has the makings of a vanity production, but with the talents of Rylance, his wife, Claire Van Kampen, who directed and composed the music, it is instead an amusing, keenly observant treatise on the vagaries of life, from bologna sandwiches to lost watches.

Erik (Jim Lichtscheidl) is a serious sportsman, the stolid type, a straight man of sorts to Ron, Erik going with the flow while Rylance’s Ron appears to be in his own little world, sucking up the beer and feigning interest in the fish while roaming far afield with his droll observations.

There’s a funny scene where Ron labors, using a hand augur to painstakingly drill a hole in the ice, while Erik drills through the ice with ease with a motorized version.

Ron is a sight, attired in bright orange – so as to not get lost in a whiteout – and cold-weather gear straight out of a bizarro LL Bean world.

“Nice Fish” is not going in any particular direction much of the time. Jenkins’ poems – which have been featured on NPR’s “Prairie Home Companion” – as adapted for the stage lend themselves to a series of short scenes that end in blackouts, and a narrative that seems to circle back on itself.

It’s never a cohesive story, but that doesn’t seem to be what Rylance is after here, anyway. It’s all about the characters and the musings of Jenkins, and The Meaning of Life, Midwestern Style.

The supporting cast features Bob Davis as a non-nonsense Department of Natural Resources ranger, who sets off an amusing riff as he binds up Erik and Ron in a blizzard of red tape involving permits and licenses, even as the final hours of the fishing season are winding down.

Later, Flo ( Kayli Carter) will enter the picture – we’re never quite sure why – after we first spy her from afar, and is joined by Jenkins, who makes his stage debut and does a decent job as Wayne, an elder statesman of a sportsman who joins in the musings.

“Nice Fish” features superb lighting and set design, with Todd Rosenthal’s ice fishing camp, with its huts and vehicles in the distance, while Japhy Weideman’s lighting carefully tracks the arc of the day, including the fading sunlight and finally the starscape of a clear frozen evening on the ice.

Ilona Somogyi’s costumes strike the appropriate tone, especially for Ron and Erik.

Rylance did some serious tweaking of “Nice Fish” between its Guthrie run and this production, which ends Feb. 7 at the ART, and then heads to St. Ann’s Warehouse in New York City on Feb. 14. With Rylance at its center, “Nice Fish” is never less than entertaining, flowing smoothly above the frozen lake, waiting for that big fish to hit, but discovering small truths during the wait.

The American Repertory Theatre production of “Nice Fish.” By Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins, drawn from the words of Louis Jenkins. Directed by Claire Van Kampen. Scenic design: Todd Rosenthal Lighting design: Japhy Weideman Costume design: Ilona Somogyi. Sound design: Scott W. Edwards. At the Loeb Drama Center through Feb. 7. www. Americanrepertorytheater.org.