by Eric Woolfe.
Directed by Michael Waller.
An Eldritch Theatre & Alianak Theatre Production
at the Artword Theatre,
January 21-February 8, 2004
The preview publicity is confusing enough. This bizarre version of the Jack the Ripper legend, that mixes “live” actors and puppets of various sizes, is variously described as being “both poignant and silly,” a mosaic with “a strong and delicious streak of the macabre,” and “a darkly romantic murder-mystery comedy.” After seeing the nearly two-hour traffic in the small black space of the Artword, I can say that Dear Boss is comically silly, lacks true edge, and is quite amateurish on the puppet side. Eric Woolfe, who is evidently a self-taught puppeteer, has a talent for vocal mimicry—he voices (in both genders) his own text, making good work of the Cockney and Scots accents—and he takes a fair stab (no pun intended) at an appropriate voice for Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, who serves improbably as assistant to an American investigator into the murders. At first, it is genuinely startling to see the grotesquely bulbous deformities of the Elephant Man puppet and to hear his delicate voice, but all poignancy is lost when the puppet remarks later: “It is a terrible fate to be a cauliflower.” He is not talking about himself, but he might as well be, for by that point in this rather pointless exercise in the droll and the deranged, he is reduced to a parody.
Dear Boss uses facts and speculations about serial killing, racial profiling (here it is the Jews who get to be targets), and media frenzy in a fantasy that lacks both plausibility and dramatic impact. The title comes from the salutation that the real Ripper used in his letters to the police, but history has not yet uncovered the identity of the true killer. Ripperology, of course, provides a plethora of suspects and motives for the Whitechapel slayings of 1888. Fingers point at a variety of possible assassins, including Lewis Carroll (hence the Alice in Wonderland figures in the show), Queen Victoria’s son, and the playwright’s own great-great uncle named Montague Druitt. However, in bringing together such disparate figures as Mary Kelly (the final Ripper victim), her lover (an unemployed fish porter named Joseph Barrett), the American chronicler of the Unexplained (Charles Fort), his assistant (the Elephant Man), Carroll’s Alice, a seventeen-foot caterpillar, the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter, vivisectionist Sir William Gull, and theosophist Helen Blavatsky, Woolfe can’t focus his work or discipline his impulse to cavort with black comedy. There are flashes of real wit but they never ignite into something large and memorable.
Woolfe can’t seem to decide if his writing should be a Victorian penny dreadful or Grand Guignol vaudeville, and his puppets often look and act like time-travelling escapees from Sesame Street. The prostitute-victims of the Ripper are rendered as miniature puppets and are little more than cloth figures who don’t have any of the subtle nuances that a Ronnie Burkett puppet has. Apart from the witty Blavatksy puppet and the crackpot Mahatma who materializes during her séance, they aren’t really dark or funny, so their presences are a mere diversion with all the impact of children’s stuffed toys. For a self-promoting “masterpiece of the macabre” to work on stage, there needs to be not simply characters and themes of social terror and the uncanny, there must also be a convincing tone for forays into the irrational, repressed, and shadowed aspects of humanity. But Woolfe’s tone becomes unhinged.
The sound design by Johnny Westgate and Michael Waller is just fine. However, the lighting by Renee Brode, like the text, swings from the darkly eerie to the ridiculously un-atmospheric. It may well be that Woolfe wants his audiences to see the puppet manipulators at all times, but because the puppets are so crudely designed and the actors so visibly exposed, you tend to watch the humans more than the cartoon puppets. Consequently, the three actors (Darren Keay as Charles Fort, Rebecca Northan as Mary Kelly, and Eric Woolfe as Joe Barnett) who do well enough as humans, never merge with their fantasy identities. You cannot escape the feeling at times that the poor actors are more deranged than their hand-held puppets.