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DEAR BOSS by Eric Woolfe, directed by Michael Waller, with Woolfe, Darren Keay and Rebecca Northan. Presented by Eldritch Theatre and Alianak Theatre Productions at Artword (75 Portland). Runs to February 8, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday 2:30 pm. $21-$28, Sunday pwyc-$21. 416-504-7529. Rating: NNN

There are few innovators in the theatre world, but Eric Woolfe (Grendelmaus, Sideshow Of The Damned) is surely one of them. His shows combine puppets, gore and stylized language. I've always thought that he could attract a whole new audience the same one that flocks to the film festival's Midnight Madness series with his funny, scary works. The potential is there with his latest, Dear Boss , a vivid and imaginative retelling of the Jack the Ripper story. But the piece needs a sharper focus, and Woolfe's main weakness insufficient character development keeps it from becoming bloody excellent.

Mixing fact and fiction, real and imaginary characters, Woolfe sets the piece in 1888 London, pairing the American Charles Fort ( Darren Keay ), a sort of Victorian Fox Mulder, with Elephant Man Joseph Merrick. They try to find the serial killer and cross paths with everyone from suspects like Sir William Gull and Helena Blavatsky to characters from Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland.

Although Woolfe's puppet designs are playful, evocative and occasionally creepy (the Jack will get under your skin), it's hard to follow the dramatis personae if you're not up on your Ripper history. And the integration of the surreal Alice characters (apparently, Carroll was also a suspect) so early on is downright disorienting.

But generally Woolfe integrates the puppets and humans with skill, and as directed by Michael Waller , the first act closer where we quickly cut from a puppet show to a live action rendition of a murder in progress is chilling.

Woolfe also touches on the era's anti-Semitism (Jews were often racially profiled suspects back then), and he delights in the period language his characters, especially the prostitute Mary Kelly (a confident Rebecca Northan ), get to mouth.

The earnest Fort and the comic Merrick have a nice rapport together, but they and the rest of the rogues' gallery of flesh-and-bloodied characters remain too shallow for us to care much about who- or whydunit.

NOW | JAN 29 - FEB 4, 2004 | VOL. 23 NO. 22