Frozen: Or the (N)ice Fish(es) of Louis Jenkins & Mark Rylance

DEC 30, 2015

By Christina Davis

In Call Me Ishmael, a text that reflects on that not-so-nice fish, Moby-Dick, the poet Charles Olson asserts that the singlemost defining factor of American literature is SPACE. “I spell it large,” he writes, “because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy […] Some men ride on such space, others have to fasten themselves like a tent stake to survive….”

You don’t have to read far into the script of Louis Jenkins and Mark Rylance’s Nice Fish to encounter (inner and outer) space writ large. Though this space seems at first more regulated and tamed than Melville’s—by the physical constraints of ice, the polite confines of a Midwestern lake, the box-shaped prose poems that constitute the script, and a title that lacks any pretense at duende—the thaw that is occurring with increasing rapidity throughout the play ultimately involves (you might say, swallows) us all in its immersive and bewildering implications.

But let’s start at the very beginning. Just what, you might ask yourself, is a “nice fish”? Like a “nice person” or the unwavering American “nice day,” one might theorize that a “nice fish” would behave our idea of it, would perform its fishness within the tidy conceptual lines we’ve drawn.

From the outset, however, the origin story of this play has been marked by misbehavior and by the dexterous crossing of lines.

At the 2008 and again at the 2011 Tony Awards, when Mark Rylance broke into an impromptu recitation of a Jenkins poem, it was as though he had walked in, sung a bar of Alice’s Restaurant, and walked out. On the stage—a space intended to widen the gyre of the human imagination—Rylance awakened the Tony audience to just how rote (or to follow the play’s prevailing metaphor, how frozen) the idea of an acceptance speech—or, acceptable speech— had become.

“I just don’t see why people have to be so inflexible, so unequivocal, so …. definite,” reflects Flo, the lone female character in Nice Fish. Her meditations are largely interchangeable with the lines assigned to the play’s other characters: three ice fishermen (Erik, Ron, and Wayne) and an Officer Obie-esque Dept. of Natural Resources rep who remains nameless.

Just as “fish” can refer to a singular or plural entity, so too the individual characters (or “figures,” as they’re referred to) in Nice Fish are increasingly on the verge of becoming people/ pluralities and not a person. In a script in which designatory confusion is common (“I’m Axel damn it. Quit calling me Karl”), it doesn’t seem to matter from whose mouth the words emerge, save that they’re spoken. Like Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, which incidentally had its first solo reading in Cambridge, Nice Fish is less a play of distinct personalities than “a play for voices.”

This osmotic flow is not limited to the dramatis personae; it occurs at the structural level as well. Like a sung-through musical, Nice Fish doesn’t punctuate the underlying poems with transitional chit-chat or conversational segues.

Jenkins’ poems are continuous throughout the script: they act as a collective unconscious which the speakers (gazing down through the ice, or up into the cosmos) tap into. Sometimes a poem is assigned to a single character in what resembles a traditional soliloquy, and sometimes the poem is divvied up among two speakers but should not be confused with dialogue. And sometimes, the poem is distributed across the characters like a spoken-word chorale.

Though “fishing” is fundamental to the play’s conceit, “neighboring” gradually reveals itself as the more accurate and activating verb. Etymologically a “neighbor” is the nearest man, the nearest being to you in space. In the wide open spaces of the Midwest, this is no small thing. And in the “white space” (as it is termed) of a prose poem on the page, each lone line is given meaning through juxtaposition and proximity. In prose poetry, as critic David Lehman writes, “sentences remain ‘relatively autonomous’ but continuity is actualized through … ‘the orientation toward the neighboring word.’” Rylance and Jenkins have bravely retained this catalyzing quality of neighboring speech and boldly rendered it on stage— what another poet has called the dynamism of the “solidary.”

Just as prose poems look like prose, but behave like poems, so too the characters in Nice Fish resemble fishermen but speak in the manner of metaphysicians: the seductive casualness of the backdrop and the folksy opening lines of Jenkins’ poems provide a kind of cultural security through which to enact a radical curiosity. The figures on stage, gradually released from the burdens of personality, become uncanny instruments that permit us to overhear the flow of time and space beneath, above, and around them. And, as the fourth wall thaws, our own presence in the neighboring wilderness “grip[s] down and begin[s] to awaken….” (William Carlos Williams).

Christina Davis is the Curator of the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard University.
This article originally appeared in the A.R.T. Guide, published by the American Repertory Theater in conjunction with A.R.T.’s production of Nice Fish.

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