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Sonja Parks is a marvel in ‘Seedfolks’; Jewish Film Festival opens

Photo by Dan Norman
Sonja Parks in “Seedfolks” playing now on the Cargill Stage at the Children's Theatre.

Unless we have children or grandchildren, even theater-loving grown-ups often dismiss the Children’s Theatre as a place for childish things. “Seedfolks,” playing now on the Cargill Stage (the theater’s flexible black box), is anything but childish.

Adapted from the Newbery-winning book by Paul Fleischman, the story is simple but profound: to honor the memory of her father, who died before she was born, a nine-year-old Vietnamese girl plants beans in a garbage-strewn vacant lot in an inner-city Cleveland neighborhood – “a neighborhood like a cheap hotel. You stay until you have enough money to leave.” Observed by a suspicious elderly woman whose window looks down on the lot, her act begins a garden that changes everything.

Sound a little sappy and sentimentalized? Loss, loneliness, poverty, distrust, racism, homelessness, hardship, infidelity, drugs, gangs, violence, crime: all are touched on in “Seedfolks,” along with hope, humor, resilience and love. Even for a grown-up, it’s a lot to take in.

Ivey winner Sonja Parks should be heaped with awards for her role – make that 11 roles. She plays every character in “Seedfolks,” none as a throwaway. Without a single costume change, using her voice, body language and facial expressions, she crosses ages, races and cultures. She’s an old Romanian woman, a Hispanic boy, a fourth-grade teacher, an old Jewish man, a 12-year-old daughter of a Haitian taxi driver, a fearful Korean woman, a fitness-obsessed teenager, an Indian man, an elderly African American woman and more. In one brief, dazzling scene, Parks becomes several people dancing, changing characters between beats.

Parks’ triumphant performance is supported by Jorge Cousineau’s set, Paul Whitaker’s lighting, Sean Healey’s sound effects, Joe Chvala’s choreography and Victor Zupanc’s music. Peter Brosius directs; he and Parks worked together for three years to bring “Seedfolks” to the stage. Just 65 minutes long, with no intermission, it’s recommended for grades 3–8. Parents and grandparents, please heed; several younger children had to be carried out when we were there. Grown-ups, go if you can. This is a play you should see, even if little feet are kicking the back of your seat.

“Seedfolks” runs through Nov. 16. For the final week, which was added due to demand, Aimee K. Bryant takes over for Parks. FMI and tickets ($10–$43).

On the other hand, if you’re looking for a childish play, you can’t do better than “Busytown the Musical,” also at the Children’s Theatre, on the main stage. Adapted by Minnesota storyteller Kevin Kling (who manages to throw in a mention of Grand Marais) from a series of books by kids’ author Richard Scarry, with music by Michael Koerner (and lyrics by Kling and Koerner), it’s a gloriously silly, colorful, manic, noisy, nonstop romp.

Priceless: Dean Holt as the Tyrolean-hatted, single-shoed, squeaky-voiced Lowly Worm, especially in the scene where he’s wheeled out on a hospital gurney. Kasono Mwanza singing the “Pickle Car” song. Gerald Drake as a pirate. Meghan Kreidler as the smitten Nurse Nellie, in love with (you guessed it) Lowly Worm. And forgive us for not remembering who played Dig Pig, but he’s awesome, too.

These are all adult actors in padded costumes, animal ears and tails, sometimes running around wearing cars or fire trucks or locomotives. It’s crazy fun. And while it’s mainly aimed at kids (this time grades K–4), adults will be amused. Special props to Victor Zupanc, the one-man band in the pit, who keeps the whole thing barreling along. Ends Oct. 26. FMI and tickets ($28–$48).

The picks

Tonight (Tuesday, Oct. 21) at the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio: “A Steady Rain.” An Odyssey Theatre Ensemble production of the play by Keith Huff (“Mad Men,” “House of Cards”), directed by Jeff Perry (Cyrus Beene in “Scandal”). Chicago cops Joey and Denny, best friends since childhood, find their friendship, loyalties, and trust tested by a domestic disturbance call. Gritty and intense, with strong language and mature themes. Ages 16+. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($26–$39).

Tonight at Jake O’Connor’s Public House in Excelsior: Eric Dregni presents his new book, “By the Waters of Minnetonka.” Facts, myths and stories about Minnesota’s most famous lake. Dregni grew up in Minnetonka. 200 Water St. Excelsior. 7 p.m. Free. Can’t make it tonight? Dregni will be at Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis on Thursday, Nov. 13.

Wednesday at Carleton College in Northfield: a 24-hour marathon reading of George Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” which many believe is the greatest English novel. Starts at 9 a.m. on the north balcony of the Sayles Hill Campus Center, ends sometime Thursday morning. Community members will take turns reading for about 30 minutes each. Come and go as you like.

Thursday at Jazz Central: Elizabeth Shepherd. The Twin Cities’ only full-time jazz venue now that the AQ has closed, Jazz Central – like the AQ – most often presents area musicians. Once in a while, someone comes through from out of town. Toronto singer-pianist Shepherd is touring behind her new album, “The Signal,” and bringing her own band. A singer in the so-called “cool” style, she reminds us most of Gretchen Parlato, which is a good thing. She sings beautifully and tells stories in her songs. Here’s a video. (Jazz fans, so you know, Lionel Loueke appears on her album but is not touring with her.) 7:30 p.m. FMI. $10 suggested donation.

Thursday at the St. Paul JCC: opening night of the Twin Cities Jewish Film Festival. Five Minnesota premieres, Israel’s 2014 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, a film that won five Israeli Academy Awards, and more feature films, documentaries and shorts from around the world on themes of Jewish culture and identity. At the St. Paul JCC, the Sabes JCC, and the Riverview. FMI, trailers, and tickets ($10/$14; festival pass $54). Formerly the Minneapolis Jewish Film Festival. Closing day Sunday, Nov. 2.

The weekend

Friday–Sunday (Oct. 24–26) at the U’s Andersen Library: “John Berryman at 100” Conference. A weekend devoted to our Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning poet, who taught at the U from 1955 until his death in 1972. With readings by Michael Dennis Browne, Jim Moore, Joyce Sutphen, Peter Campion, Ray Gonzalez and Wang Ping; new books about Berryman, and reissues of his “Sonnets” and “77 Dream Songs”; panels; seminars with academic papers; and a screening of Al Milgrom’s 27-minute documentary “Rediscovering John Berryman.” Here’s all you need to know. Free, but registration is required.

Sunday at Orchestra Hall: VocalEssence: “Made in Minnesota.” Although it’s unseemly to celebrate ourselves, we have a strong, provocative, diverse and thrilling music scene. It’s true, so there. Hear for yourself when VocalEssence opens its 46th season with a concert of music by Minnesota composers Dominick Argento, Libby Larsen, Jocelyn Hagen, Dessa (making her choral premiere) and, poignantly, Stephen Paulus, who passed away Sunday morning from complications of a stroke he suffered last year. (Paulus is the topic of tomorrow’s Artscape.) Dale Warland will conduct the Ensemble Singers in Argento’s “Seasons,” a piece Argento wrote especially for Warland (and insists is the last thing he’ll ever write). Philip Brunelle, Sigrid Johnson and Tesfa Wondemagegnehu will handle the rest of the program. 4 p.m. Come early for a pre-concert conversation with Larsen, Hagen and Dessa. FMI and tickets ($10–$40).

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