Erin Brandenburg and Andrew Penner used to visit Boblo as children before it closed in 1993.
BOBLO by Erin Brandenburg and Andrew Penner, directed by Steve McCarthy, with Anna Atkinson, Gordon Bolan, George Meanwell, Trent Pardy, Penner, Alan Penner, Amy Rutherford and Sophia Walker. Presented by Kitchenband/Theatre Centre at the Great Hall Black Box (1087 Queen West). Opens tonight (Thursday, November 22) and runs to December 2, Wednesday-Saturday 7:30 pm, matinee Sunday 2 pm. $25. 416-538-0988. See listing.
The elusive but powerful nature of memory fuels Boblo, the latest music-and-theatre piece by Kitchenband.
Run by Erin Brandenburg and Andrew Penner, the company often draws inspiration from the rural past. In works such as Reesor, Pelee and Petrichor, they've mined the lives of people living in small, often overlooked Canadian communities.
They're going for a different kind of experience in Boblo, which focuses on an island amusement park in the Detroit River between Detroit and Windsor. A regular childhood summer haunt for Penner, Brandenburg and thousands of others before it closed down in 1993, Boblo was an entertainment site for nearly a century.
"I grew up on a farm in southwestern Ontario, and that's where everyone went at the end of the summer," says Penner, smiling. "It wasn't like Canada's Wonderland, but rather a sort of overgrown country fair/carnival."
"My aunts and uncles worked there as teens," adds Brandenburg. "I went often enough that I knew where each good ride was located. Now I see it through the lens of memory. Its buildings are falling down and a gated community occupies part of the island."
With its dance hall, rides and other attractions, Boblo is ripe for nostalgic and happy reminiscences. But the Kitchenband production also explores the sad and distressing aspects of the island, including various tragedies and the occasional sinister moment from the past. Its look at death draws suggestively on Greek myths of the underworld.
"Though Boblo resembles our earlier works, it's told from a more surreal, dreamlike perspective," offers Penner, a musician who also heads the Sunparlour Players. The pair originally pitched the idea to the Theatre Centre as a radio play, and have been developing it for two years.
Out of that initial seed has grown one of the production's key figures, Radio Woman.
"She's an archivist of sorts, trying to make a meaning from all the events and facts she discovers about Boblo," explains Brandenburg. "Bits of history, voices and personal experiences come to her through radio waves.
"Once it was thought that radio waves travel into space and are lost, but now it's acknowledged that the wave particles continue forever. That's a good analogy for how memory works, how the past is constantly with us, reverberating around us."
Music has always been central to the works of Kitchenband. But while the earlier pieces featured handmade instruments, the history of Boblo is better suited to more traditional ones.
"The dance hall saw all the great musicians between the 20s and the 60s, from big bands to the swing era and Motown," says Penner, who's written most of the production's songs. "We've tried to cover various styles: ragtime, swing, soulful songs and Detroit punk. The onstage bandstand looks like a vintage music store."
Ironically, the show, which records the end of an era at Boblo, is also the final work to be performed in the Theatre Centre's former space at Dovercourt and Queen, now called the Great Hall Black Box.
"There's a real estate thing happening both on Boblo and Queen West, and the transition adds an extra sense of change and loss to what we're talking about," adds Penner. "I think the show will encourage people to slide into their own memories."
"Everyone has their own Boblo," agrees Brandenburg. "It can be a regular family campground visit, a childhood toy or something else; whatever it might be, we all understand that universal sense of connection to something that's no longer part of our lives."