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Onstage, this 'Nice Fish' is an acquired taste

Onstage, this 'Nice Fish' is an acquired taste
Barry Heins, left, and Don Fischer star in "Nice Fish," written by Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins and staged by Interact Theatre Company at the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles. (Ed Krieger)

From all outward indications, "Nice Fish," an Interact Theatre Company production at the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, should be a keeper.

The elegantly simple situation — two guys ice-fishing on a Minnesota lake – seems rife with comedic possibilities. Co-directors Rob Brownstein and Anita Khanzadian, both old theatrical hands, have assembled an able company spearheaded by Don Fischer and Barry Heins as fishermen Erik and Ron, whose adventures on the ice range from the quotidian to the surreal. Even the design elements — especially Evan Bartoletti's striking, snow-swept set and Martin Carrillo's evocative sound design — are first rate.

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In this case, however, the fish stinks from the head — namely, with a play that has passages of lyrical intensity yet is confused. It's a mash-up of Beckett, Ionesco and sketch comedy — except the protagonists are not waiting for Godot but for a fish that never seems to bite.

The writing was a collaboration between Academy Award and three-time Tony winner Mark Rylance and Minnesota "prose poet" Louis Jenkins. Individually, the two are heralded — Rylance as one of the preeminent stage actors of his generation, and Jenkins as a veteran writer whose work, including the 1996 poetry collection "Nice Fish," has been published to considerable acclaim.

Yet in combination, the two have crafted a piece as extravagantly eccentric as, say, Rylance's tendency to accept awards by quoting Jenkins' poetry — an homage that leaves many in the audience scratching heads.

This show, which commences with a series of oblique blackouts before seguing into more outlandish scenes, gives the audience the same cerebral itch.

"Fish" has been described by Jenkins as a "patchwork of my poems and a plot." That's putting it generously, since an actual plot never surfaces. Other characters include an officious conservation officer (Tamika Simpkins) who pops out of an ice hole before plunging back into the deep. Kristen Egermeier plays Flo, a perky young woman who lives with her grandfather Wayne (Rick Friesen) in an ice hut, complete with sauna, near Erik and Ron's makeshift camp.

Stevie Anne Nemazee's puppets are nicely executed but extraneous to the action — yet another example of the play's randomness.

Welcome nuggets include some genuinely poignant exchanges, such as the musings of an elderly couple, played by Fischer and Heins, who, near the end of their lives, liken their existences to a poorly plotted movie with bad character development. Yet, they say, "some of the scenery was nice."

The same could be said for "Nice Fish."

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘Nice Fish’

Where: Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, 1238 W. 1st St., Los Angeles.

When: 8:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 4 p.m. Sundays; ends March 25

Tickets: $25

Information: (818) 765-8732, www.interactla.org

Running time: 2 hours

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