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Dear Boss

Written by Eric Woolfe

Directed by Michael Waller

Starring Darren Keay, Rebecca Northan, Eric Woolfe

At Artword Theatre in Toronto

Rating: **½

In the world of punk-tinged, Victorian-gothic puppeteering, Eric Woolfe must rank near the very top. In Toronto. At the moment. So it's just as well that the beautiful, if warped, mind behind such cult shows as, in the words of a colleague, the "exuberantly idiotic" Sideshow of the Damned and Grendelmaus has other tricks up his theatrical sleeve.

In Dear Boss (which opened Friday at Toronto's Artword Theatre), Woolfe takes on the most gothic of all Victorian mysteries: the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888. His intent is not to propose new theories to the already overcrowded world of "Ripperologists," but to extract some parallels to post-9/11 racial profiling and trial-by-media from the moral panic and newspaper frenzy that accompanied the original case.

As it happens, Woolfe's great-great-uncle, Montague Druitt, was touted as a possible suspect. Parts of Dear Boss were written during the Washington Sniper murders of 2002, and the historical research that followed led Woolfe to conclude that, in essence, news reporting hasn't changed much in the intervening 114 years.

It's a plausible, politically sound but wildly sweeping generalization. Empirically, Woolfe doesn't define the exact nature of the Victorian newspapers that sensationalized the case or which channels of contemporary media he is criticizing, and the show suffers the most when the parallels override his narrative and its visual presentation. But, unlike much of the useless detective work of his characters, Woolfe is on to something here beyond politics. His personal lineage may (or may not) include criminal suspects, but his exploration of the literary use of the "Uncanny," of psychic ruptures in society and of the motifs of secrecy and disguise in 19th-century England links him more to Victorian writers such as Wilkie Collins or even Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who mixed the domestic and the supernatural. What they did in three-volume novels, Woolfe emulates with a two-act play, three actors and 30 puppets, restoring terror to its original meaning -- dread, wonder, mystery -- along the way.

The three main flesh-and-blood characters in Dear Boss are the American "prophet of the unexplained" and self-styled detective Charles Forte (Darren Keay); Mary Kelly (Rebecca Northan), the Ripper's last victim; and her lover Joseph Barnett (Woolfe), an unemployed fishmonger. Through weird and wonderful puppets that Woolfe personally created and to a soundtrack of punk rock, all three actors take turns playing a gallery of suspects, law enforcers and victims. Among them are Charles's assistant, the Elephant Man, brought to life by Woolfe with astonishing and endearing humour not matched elsewhere in the play.

The transitions between actors and puppets could be smoother and I wish Renee Brode's lighting design could have heightened the theatricality of shadows and dark alleys so central to atmosphere and content, but director Michael Waller should be applauded for keeping up with the feverish mind of Woolfe, who subjects the cast to more costume changes than a Cher concert. Keay is excellent at whatever Woolfe throws him, but Northan, better known in comedy circuits, is more at ease in the broader elements than those that follow Mary Kelly's last moments.

The problem is in crafting dialogue that does justice to Woolfe's literary instincts. The research shows, but the writing doesn't tell it as well. We can expect a certain number of stereotypes in a puppet-driven show, but apart from delicately handled allusions to Alice in Wonderland, most of the writing is pitched at that silly heightened Victorian tone that allows humour to breathe but suffocates emotional and political resonance. For this kind of stylized theatre to be more than a display of low-budget whimsy, all three elements need to be given equal weight.

That said, for those who can't get tickets to Ronnie Burkett's Provenance, Dear Boss is, in more ways than one, an alternative option.

Dear Boss continues at Toronto's Artword Theatre until Feb. 8.

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