Frozen tundra comes to Grinnell in “Nice Fish”

By Amanda Weber
weberama@grinnell.edu

This weekend, the Grinnell College Theatre Department is putting on a production of the play “Nice Fish” by Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins. The S&B got the chance to attend a tech rehearsal and speak to director Professor Ellen Mease and cast member Joseph Robertson ’19 about the production.

The plot of “Nice Fish,” an absurdist comedy in the style of Samuel Beckett, revolves around two old friends ice fishing on a lake in Minnesota. The friends discuss love, mortality and the meaning of life, all while battling storms and desperately seeking a nice fish.

“It’s the span of a whole life that’s being depicted in this single day on the ice, with the catastrophe of the storm bringing up essential aspects of the human condition,” Mease said.

Written by lauded Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance, “Nice Fish” was heavily influenced by and contains the work of prose poet Louis Jenkins. It made its world premiere at St. Ann’s Warehouse in February of 2016, and now has come to the College for its first Grinnell treatment.

Mease is intimately acquainted with the play, as she is a personal friend of Jenkins and has been an audience member at a number of the play’s premieres. Her familiarity with the play and its poet, and the similarities she saw between the Midwestern atmosphere of the play and Grinnell’s own Midwestern vastness, led her to choose “Nice Fish” for the College. She hopes to be as true to the original vision of the play as possible.

“There is no directorial innovation here. I’m doing the play as carefully and honestly as it can be done,” Mease said.

According to Mease, challenges faced during the rehearsal process have mainly included dealing with the less-than-ideal acoustics in Roberts Theatre and ensuring that the actors are all word-perfect on their poetic monologues. Inflection, Mease believes, should be perfect, as the actors typically only get one shot to present the best possible version of the play to their audience.

“We get to study the script. We get to repeat, repeat, repeat, which is what rehearsal is. But the audience only hears it once,” Mease said.

In order to ensure that the final product is as polished as possible, the rehearsal process has been rigorous. The cast met Sundays through Thursdays for three and a half hours every day. However, there was enjoyment to be found amongst the stress.

“It’s just so magical when the lighting and the sound design comes in during tech week,” Robertson said. “It can be a little tedious to have to stop-go, stop-go, but when everyone is on top of their lines and everything is moving smoothly, it’s just a really beautiful, dynamic form of art that’s taking place.”

A good portion of the artistry of the show manifests itself in the effects and set as well. The theater is experimenting with some new effects, from a bluescreen to a shoreline that bobs in the background to a mechanized, flopping fish imported from the Guthrie. Furthermore, the entire stage has been transformed into a frozen, snow-dusted lake, making the barren, cold atmosphere of the play all the more convincing. 

Fortunately, the show is populated by characters colorful enough to keep the desolate tundra engaging. The show’s two focal characters, aging fishermen Erik and Ron, played by Reed Roffis ’18 and Robertson respectively, artfully play off of one another. Erik, cynical and serious, ruminates on life’s heavier burdens, but is offset by the childish humor of Robertson’s Ron.

“I love how Ron is either completely focused on something nonsensical or completely open to the whole universe in all of its wonder and never anywhere in between,” Robertson said. “He’s either obsessing over the snowman’s nose or he’s contemplating love.”

All of these factors result in a light-hearted, comedic and surreal performance punctuated by moments of poignancy and sincerity. On the whole, Grinnell’s production of “Nice Fish” provides an authentic reflection of Jenkins’ original poems and Rylance’s subsequent adaptation, capturing a mood that is funny, moving and genuine — just like life.

In the play’s program, Mease conveys what she wants audiences to take from the show: “What the play gives us … is the gift and sheer pleasure of laughter. Might as well laugh, in spite of everything.”

Showings of “Nice Fish” will take place on Oct. 6 and 7 at 7:30 p.m., and Oct. 8 at 2 p.m. in Bucksbaum’s Roberts Theatre, and have an approximately 100 minute run time. For those interested in learning more about Louis Jenkins and hearing more of his poetry, he will be speaking at 4:15 pm on Oct. 6 in Roberts Theatre.

Cast members of “Nice Fish” from left to right: Liam Stowe ’19, Christina Collins ’21, Reed Roffis ’18 and Joseph Robertson ’19 rehearse for opening night.
Photos by Helena Gruensteidl