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Dear Boss

g and compass

Toronto Star

Jan. 29, 2004.

Love and tragedy meet among puppets



Dear Boss

By Eric Woolfe. Directed by Michael Waller. Until Feb. 8 at Artword Theatre, 75 Portland St. 416-504-7529


If the identity of Jack the Ripper is ever conclusively established, he will stand as the first in a lineage that continues to grow, of serial killers whose particular prey are prostitutes.

A special kind of terror was born on the streets east London in 1888, once the Ripper's pattern of soliciting women and then murdering and dismembering them became known. The same terror fills the streets and alleyways of our cities especially Vancouver's downtown east side more than a century later.

The only difference is that the predators have multiplied and the victims are made more vulnerable and desperate by their drug dependencies.

Jack the Ripper was the original "bad date." As depicted in Dear Boss, he would engage his victims in conversation, negotiate for their services and then swiftly strangle them and carve them up.

It is a tribute to the stagecraft of writer Eric Woolfe and director Michael Waller that a doll-sized puppet dressed as a Victorian gentleman is capable of stirring our horror as much as might any live actor portraying the Ripper. Only three people appear on stage in Dear Boss Woolfe and actors/puppeteers Rebecca Northan and Darren Keay but they employ a full cast of puppets to tell a tale that sets the 1888 murders in a recreated Victorian context.

Keay plays Charles Fort, a young American from Albany, N.Y. with a fascination for the weird and macabre. He carries a pocketful of newspaper clippings detailing events such as the raining down of fish from the sky and the spontaneous combustion of human beings. His skeptical father, hoping Fort will soon get a practical purpose in life, calls him Peckerhead. Northan is Mary Kelly, the prostitute who was Jack the Ripper's last victim. Woolfe plays Joe Barnett, an unemployed fish porter who is Mary's lover.

Driven my a manic energy that fuses gallows humour, forensic science, cultural history and everyday human conflict into a fast-paced drama of love, madness and tragedy, Dear Boss picks up a colourful assemblage of characters in its sweep of 1888 London society.

There's Joseph Merrick, the hideously deformed Elephant man, whom Fort (self-proclaimed Prophet of the Unexplained) enlists as his assistant in his search for the killer. "He's half elephant," says Fort. "He'll be good at remembering clues." There's Madam Blavatsky, a huge wide-mouthed puppet manipulated by Northan. Her closeness to the spirit world is considered a help in discovering Jack the Ripper's identity. There's Sir William Gull, the royal physician and freemason, who was suspected of a connection to the murders. There's Tumbletee, a Canadian pharmacist who keeps a collection of uteruses, linking him to the murderer, who removed his victims' reproductive organs. And there's Lewis Carroll, at one time a suspect as the Ripper, represented by some of his characters from the Alice books, which were perused for anagrams thought to be the author's confession of his crimes.

At the centre of the play is Mary Kelly, a hooker with a loving side to complement her practical insistence on plying her trade to meet the rent. "I'm not selling myself," she says to Joe. "I'm just renting it out for a bit."

Woolfe raises the issue of racial profiling, incorporating in his character's speeches a note allegedly left by killer the anti-Semitism that sought to blame Jews for the murders. With a simple bed as the only prop, some well-staged musical cues from punk rock groups the Pixies, Wire and the Vibrators, and some deft hands working the puppets, Dear Boss renders Woolfe's thorough research into a Ripping yarn.

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