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culture

Remembering Boblo

The Theatre Centre winds down its residency at the Great Hall with memories of a shuttered amusement park.

The band from Boblo. Photo by Abhishek Chandra.

Boblo
The Great Hall, Black Box Theatre (1087 Queen Street West)
November 22 to December 2, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.
$20–$25

A suggestion while watching Boblo: buy a can of Faygo soda from the theatre’s concession stand, preferably a tooth-rotting flavour like Redpop or Rock & Rye. Keep it handy for swaying when the band plays the nostalgia-laden jingle used in 1970s Faygo TV ads shot on the large Bob-Lo Island ferry boats, which made daily runs along the Detroit River from the Motor City to the island amusement park.

Faygo may be sticky sweet, but Boblo isn’t. Billed as “A Rock-n-Roll Concert, A Final Transmission,” Kitchenband’s live theatrical performance reflects on the fleeting nature of memory within the context of a former theme park. Like radio waves floating across the universe, memories of Bob-Lo Island may be drifting away, but—even 20 years after the last screams from the midway echoed across the water to Amherstburg, Ontario—they continue to surface.

Boblo was an amusement park that operated From 1898 to 1993 on Bois Blanc Island, a small piece of land situated between Amherstberg and Michigan, a little south of Detroit. (Before providing a summer day’s getaway for generations of families in the Detroit-Windsor region, the island saw action during the Rebellions of 1837-1838, and as one of the final stops along the Underground Railway.) Over the years it boasted the typical array of roller coasters, bumper cars, midway games, and fast-food stands, along with attractions like a dance pavilion, an observation tower, and its iconic steam ferries. Since the park’s demise, part of the island has been developed into a private residential community.

The park’s fadeout is well reflected by Boblo‘s ghostly feel. Spectral figures sway in the background behind the plastic wrap circling the stage, while certain touches, like old-fashioned microphones, add to the out-of-time feeling. These elements echo the current state of the island, where the ruins of 19th-century blockhouses and park structures remain. Ghostly memories will also stir among those, like co-creators Erin Brandenburg and Andrew Penner, who visited the park during its century of operation or who, like me, were among the generations of Amherstburg teenagers who worked at the park every summer. I can vouch for the uniforms being as bad as described.

Anchoring Boblo is its music, which mixes originals by Penner and songs, like the Faygo ad, associated with the park during its century of existence. Ranging from melancholy string-heavy songs related to tragic events in the island’s history to energetic dance tunes the audience tapped its toes to, the diverse nature of the score combines with the multimedia stage effects to simulate something like the experience of riding a roller coaster. The acting creates a similar impression, with Sophia Walker demonstrating a chameleon-like versatility, going from a girl mapping out her experiences on the island to a slightly sinister carny whose light-swinging suggests a spinning wheel from which no one will win a prize.

Like any swooping ride, Boblo dips between its peaks. The multimedia nature of the show leads to serious sensory overload, like going on a ride after eating too much. Some background choreography and special effects could have been reduced to allow more focus on the foreground action. The use of crackly radio voices alternately adds to the dream-like atmosphere and grates when the dialogue borders on unintelligible.

A production about a bygone era is appropriate for The Theatre Centre’s final presentation in its home at the Great Hall. Following Boblo, the organization is moving into a “pop-up” location a few doors west, then into its first permanent home at 1115 Queen Street West.

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