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DEAR BOSS
****

Featuring Darren Keay, Rebecca Northan. Written by Eric Woolfe. Directed by Michael Waller. Presented by Eldritch and Alianak theatres. To Feb 8. Tue-Sat 8pm; Sat-Sun mats 2:30pm. $21-$28. Artword Theatre, 75 Portland. 416-504-7529.

You'd expect a play about Jack the Ripper to evoke fear, but you wouldn't expect that it could both elicit laughs and unleash your romantic side. However, with a good ear for timing, a clever combination of puppets with human characters and a twisted blend of fantasy with reality, actor-playwright Eric Woolfe's Dear Boss does just that.

Named for one of Jack the Ripper's infamous letters, Dear Bossfollows the hunt for the Victorian serial killer. Charles Fort (slightly overacted by the otherwise likeable Darren Keay), the "American Chronicler of the Unexplained," arrives in 1988 Whitechapel to crack the Ripper case. With a fascination for the occult, a tendency toward rambling conversation and the unyielding belief that fish can rain from the sky, Fort begins collecting news clippings, concocting potions and consulting a theosophist (whose writhing, sexy "harder, right in my chakra!" seance provides the play's best laugh).

Fort enlists the help of an unlikely partner, Joseph Merrick, a.k.a. The Elephant Man (a delightful Eric Woolfe). While often providing comic relief, Merrick acts as an anchor for the dreamy Fort. Along their travels, they meet Mary Kelly, the last prostitute the Ripper killed. Kelly is desperate to unlock the meaning of her recurring foreboding nightmares. Played to perfection by Rebecca Northan, who delivers an expertly layered performance, Kelly becomes the most captivating and sympathetic character in the play. Touching effectively upon modern-day themes like racial profiling, media overexposure and mass paranoia, the play never gets too heavy to make you feel guilty for laughing, but never gets so comedic that the plot is overtaken, making Dear Boss truly boss. PAMELA CHELIN