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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Monday, Oct. 20, 2014

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Cassandra Bissell and Reese Madigan star in "Amelia."
Cassandra Bissell and Reese Madigan star in "Amelia."

Renaissance creates absolute magic with Civil War-based "Amelia"

From "Romeo and Juliet" to "Love Story," the tale of youngsters who fall in love, only to see death and a search for meaning in it all is so often told that it seems to have become almost a cliche of itself.

But when that story gets mixed with history and put into the warm, smart and incredibly talented hands of a small coterie of very creative people, the story takes on a new meaning and creates the kind of theatrical magic that comes only on occasion.

That’s what happened when "Amelia" opened at Renaissance Theaterworks Saturday night.

To say that it was an evening of magic is to sell it short. It was the kind of production that gave hope to the heart, joy to the soul and a sorrow leavened by admiration and wonder. Under the careful and open-hearted direction of Laura Gordon, this tale is set on fire in the cauldron of the Civil War, burnished by the foolish journey of an unstoppable woman and extinguished by the anguish of being left behind with only memories and pride to carry you through the rest of your life.

Cassandra Bissell plays the title character, a woman of brains who runs her father’s dairy farm. She is determined to live her life on her own terms and won’t compromise just to get a man or to play the game of trying to get a man.

Reese Madigan plays Ethan, the man who wins her heart. He also plays countless other characters including both of her parents; Marie, a contemporary so-called friend who is tasteless in her desires for Ethan; a variety of both southern and northern soldiers; and Samuel, a black slave who helps Amelia in her journey.

After marrying, the war breaks out, and Ethan volunteers for what he promises will be just 90 days worth of fighting. Two and a half years later, the letters from Ethan have stopped, sending Amelia out on a perilous journey to find her husband.

It is a tortured journey as she chases rumor after rumor, report after report, mythical sightings and foes who vastly outnumber her allies. So many obstacles, bo…

Max Pink, Katherine Pollnow, Elizabeth Robbins, Matthias Wong and Max Zupke (left to right) star in "Sherlock Holmes: The Baker Street Irregulars."
Max Pink, Katherine Pollnow, Elizabeth Robbins, Matthias Wong and Max Zupke (left to right) star in "Sherlock Holmes: The Baker Street Irregulars." (Photo: Paul Ruffolo)

First Stage's "Sherlock" shines a bright light in the theatrical sky

Most of the time when a play opens, it’s easy to figure out who the star is – usually an actor with a major part. Sometimes, the star can be something else, like a director or a composer or a costume designer.

Rarely would anybody pick a lighting designer as the star, unless they see the wonderful production of "Sherlock Holmes: The Baker Street Irregulars" that opened the season for First Stage.

The lighting by Jason Fassl is so spectacular that it seems to tell the complex story of this band of young detectives all by itself. Through any number of scene changes and different actions, Fassl has created a panorama of light and effects that are stunning in how they evoke emotion and surprise.

One moments stands out so starkly that you could almost hear the audience gasp when they saw it.

Wiggins, one of the Irregulars played with aplomb and skill by Max Pink, gets into a fight with his crime lord father played by Todd Denning. Think back to Roy Rogers or Arnold Schwarzenegger and those fights they had on top of moving locomotives. That’s where this fight took place, and the lighting was so spectacular that it really looked like they were on top of a moving train. You had to pinch yourself to realize this was taking place in a theater.

Fassl is one of the busiest lighting designers in the country, and it’s easy to see why he is so in demand. He has a love for the theater, a clear understanding of the story and an inventive capacity to create lights that help the story move along.

"Sherlock Holmes: The Baker Street Irregulars" is a world premiere, written by well-known playwright Eric Coble based on a series of graphic novels by Tony Lee and Dan Boultwood. The story begins with the death of Sherlock Holmes and the decision by a gang of young people to take up the battle, using their varied skills to be the detectives who can take up the task of replacing Holmes.

It's a classic detective story with villains, cops, mistaken identities, subterfuge, heroic…

"Suicide Sleep" is currently running at The Alchemist Theatre.
"Suicide Sleep" is currently running at The Alchemist Theatre.

Alchemist's "Suicide Sleep" is a wildly fascinating Halloween treat

If you are going to bill a play as your Halloween show, it ought to be filled with fright and fear, and get an audience to tremble in their seats, closing their eyes to keep the phantoms away.

Alchemist Theatre billed "Suicide Sleep"as its Halloween show, but nobody in the audience was trembling or closing their eyes to keep phantoms away.

Instead, they were all on the edge of their seats – as was I – riveted with curiosity about just where this journey was going to take us. We were obviously on some kind of trip, but it was not in a plush stateroom on some smooth sailing ship. It was instead in some kind of rowboat in a turbulent and roiling sea.

Under the direction of Charles Sommers, this play by Aaron Kopec could well be one written from the ranks of the avant garde playwrights of the 20th century.

Samuel Beckett’s "Waiting for Godot" prompted famous Irish critic Vivian Mercier to call it "a play in which nothing happens but keeps the audience glued to their seats."

Welcome to the world of "Suicide Sleep." After seeing it, I have a hard time figuring out what just happened, but I’m equally certain that something important and interesting did.

Let me lay out some facts (or at least I think they are facts).

Rick is a guy who lives in a ghastly apartment in an attic of a slum and can’t get any sleep because of the racket of his neighbors and the devils dancing in his head. Jimmy is the weed-riddled, good meaning neighbor who thinks Rick is having troubles with his girlfriend, Lynn, who is a medical student. Jimmy thinks he can show Rick how to handle his woman. Sarah is Lynn’s sister who hasn’t talked to her in five years, primarily because she slept with many of Lynn’s boyfriends. And then there is the Dreamgirl, who is Lynn after she’s been murdered and is just killing time until she gets murdered again.

Confused yet?

If I were to guess, I would proffer that this play is about reality, how fleeting it can be and how difficult it is to c…

The new brunch/breakfast spot Engine Company No. 3 opened last month.
The new brunch/breakfast spot Engine Company No. 3 opened last month. (Photo: Carolynn Buser)
The Argentinian steak had a nice heat and was perfectly done.
The Argentinian steak had a nice heat and was perfectly done. (Photo: Carolynn Buser)
House-made biscotti and a bloody mary are the perfect addition for brunch.
House-made biscotti and a bloody mary are the perfect addition for brunch. (Photo: Carolynn Buser)

Engine Company No. 3 is a spirited and adventurous breakfast spot

For the eighth straight year, October is Dining Month on, presented by Locavore, the newest restaurant at Potawatomi Hotel & Casino. All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, delectable features, chef profiles and unique articles on everything food, as well as the winners of our "Best of Dining 2014."

There’s hardly anything I admire more than a chef who can take wildly different flavors, put them on a plate and serve something that is more delicious than you ever imagined.

That admiration was reinforced Friday when I stopped for breakfast at Peter Sandroni’s Engine Company No. 3, the breakfast and brunch cousin of his famed La Merenda – which was voted Milwaukee’s best small plate restaurant yet again in the annual readers' dining poll.

I sat at the end of a 12-seat bar and after spending more time than usual scanning the menu, I finally decided on the Argentinian steak and egg.

The plate arrived in good time and looked great, but Sandroni has always been known as a chef who wants to make sure the food tastes great first and looks great second. This looked great and was a portent of what it tasted like.

The small steak was marinated in chimi churri, a popular Argentinian marinade, along with a bunch of other spices. The steak, along with the egg poached in red wine with a touch of vinegar and the french green beans, all sat atop a flat bed of mashed plantain which added a touch of sweetness to the dish.

It was a virtual assault on the senses. The steak had just a bit of a spice and heat, the egg – unlike any poached egg I’ve ever seen – had some wine flavor, the beans were a crisp vegetable and the plantain, as I said, provided sweetness.

This was a perfect example of how an expert can take a bunch of different flavors and create the kind of breakfast that makes you wish you could do this every day to set a great attitude toward the work coming up.

The space, which used to be a firehouse, is spacious and…