BANGOR — I love Ben Layman. Whenever I see this triple-threat actor’s name on the cast list of an area theatrical event — most often, these days, the Penobscot Theatre Company— I know I am going to have a terrific time.
So, of course I was thrilled to see that PTC’s virtual performance season, Digitus Theatrum, has come up with a series of kids’ shows, “Mr. Ben’s Playhouse” hosted by Mr. Ben Layman, YAY! which debuted the last two weeks with its first streamed episodes.
Now when I say kids’ show, I mean it in the sense that “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” is a kiddie show. The 15-minute episodes are chocked full of nutty fun fit for all ages — but mostly the youngsters.
In the first episode, Mr. Ben comes through his playhouse door like an astronaut on a spacewalk. I will now add miming to this actor’s credits, as there was no question that he was floating through a vacuum, in full space regalia. Then Mr. Ben “took off” his helmet and explained the meaning of “dramatic entrance,” which it certainly was.
The theme of this first show was “imagination,” presented with the help of Biff Wellington (a wonderfully pompous Brad LaBree), a flamboyant director who even gives notes on small talk, and Penny, a magical talking prop and costume box (voiced by the excellent Jen Shepard).
Clearly, the show’s creators were inspired by elements from Pee-wee Herman, Mister Rogers and Captain Kangaroo with a lineup of quirky guests, human and puppet, and engaging topics and scenarios.
As Penny produces one prop after the other — a cowboy hat, a cane, a fan and such, Mr. Ben and Mr. Biff act out little “improv” vignettes involving a retired sheriff who still misses the job, a Shakespearean sword fight and the aging of Mr. Ben from cheerful, robust young man to a grumpy old geezer. It is all very basic stage craft stuff, but because the acting is so good and the production values — the sets, props, lighting, sound, and special effects — so polished, it is also great fun.
Adding to this fun is a visit from the Opera House Gang, a group of adorable Muppet-style puppets voiced by Mr. LaBree and his wife, Kat Johnson, who is also responsible for making the puppets and Mr. Ben’s set.
This pair of Opera House Gang cuties show us how the combination of a good book and imagination can result in an epic adventure, and even make sweeping fun.
Well, it’s all just wonderful in the best sense of that word, and while, as I said, I already love Ben Layman, his ability to make me feel like a kid again makes me love him even more.
Episodes of “Mr. Ben’s Playhouse” launch every Saturday through Feb.6 at around 9 a.m. (As an original member of the Saturday morning TV club, I would have loved to have watched this show over a breakfast bowl of Frosted Flakes).
Admission is $40 per household and covers all prior and future “Mr. Ben’s Playhouse” shows. To sign up, visit penobscottheatre.org. For more info, call 942-3333.