Hyper-real surreal takes the stage in Falling: A Wake

The great thing about magical realism is that you get the magic out of the way first. Then you get to enjoy real characters behaving realistically in a really unbelievable situation.

This sort of work-out for the imagination is what Wishbone Theatre, a new Edmonton company, has been going for – that and the acting skill it takes to pull this sort of thing off. Its latest production playing through Nov. 27 at the PCL Theatre in the Arts Barns is called “Falling: A Wake,” a tale of an elderly rural couple who discovers the corpse of a young man killed in an airplane explosion, still strapped into his seat. What they do next isn’t so unbelievable. They call the authorities. And while they’re waiting, they talk to him.

Director Michael Peng says, “The wife, Elsie, is a person of faith and so she thinks maybe he’s still here. And if he’s still here, it would be rude not to talk to him. So she starts this conversation. They’re in the middle of nowhere and the husband isn’t the greatest conversationalist, so she’s desperate for somebody to talk to.”

The husband humours her, brings out some lawn chairs to make her more comfortable and soon joins the chat, and in so doing says things that he never would’ve said to his wife under normal circumstances – and that’s what this play is really about. It’s a relationship drama.

“The young man becomes this catalyst for things that are not normally said, that have been avoided for years,” Peng says. “You’ve probably had these instances where it’s late at night, the stars are out and the fire’s going, and things get said that don’t normally get said, due to the magic of the night, the presence of something other. That’s where this play lives. We’re talking about it in terms of magical realism, like the movie Amelie or a Coen Brothers film, that hyper-real surreal kind of thing.”

Peng calls this a huge acting challenge, not only for the elderly couple (played by Brian Dooley and Holly Turner), but for the dead man as well. Yes, the corpse is being played by a real actor (Jamie Cavanagh), which is “essential” for the believability of this story, especially in the intimate setting of the PCL theatre. The whole play is geared to be intimate.

“It’s pretty rare to find a piece of theatre that’s so internal,” Peng says. “There’s a lot of nuance. Most of the time you’re so far away you can’t even see it or there’s lots bells and whistles that get in the way. This strips a lot of that away. It’s just great characters for the actors to explore.”

Peng is an actor by trade, a director by MFA. His last turn was as a barmy Algerian schoolteacher in Bashir Lazhar that was so convincing that even Algerians were convinced he was Algerian. He’s Hungarian-Canadian. Not even close. He was supposed to star in Wishbone’s next production, Waiting for Godot – speaking of hyper-real surrealism – but then got a better offer: The lead in Race by David Mamet at the Catalyst Theatre in February. “Any time you get offered the lead in a David Mamet, you take it,” Peng says. “But that meant I couldn’t be in Godot.”

Having to choose between Samuel Beckett and David Mamet – now that’s unbelievable.