Crass 'Little Egypt' oddly heartwarming

March 27, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Mundane life in a small Midwestern town may not seem to have much in common with tales of rescued princesses and knights in shining armor.

But Lynn Siefert's "Little Egypt" -- receiving a slick, funny production at AXIS Theatre -- is precisely that. It's the story of a knight and his lady, set in a backward burg in southern Illinois.

How backward is it? Well, Little Egypt is the kind of town where the words "dark ages" refer to more than the Medieval flavor of Siefert's plot.

And yet, as directed by Gil Given, this isn't just another laugh-at-the-yokels comedy.

Given's direction is plenty broad: In their respective first scenes, actor Aric-James Darroe cleans his ears with a Q-Tip and actress Carlisle Morrisette lambastes her daughters while yanking on pantyhose. But there's also a lot of sweetness in "Little Egypt."

Most of this stems from the central character of Celeste, played by a bespectacled Gwyn Hervochon as bright and kind, but decidedly odd. As Morrisette's college-educated daughter, Celeste has an indiscriminate approach to book-learning (the dictionary is her bedtime tome of choice) and a peculiarly formal way of speaking (she describes herself as having a "tragic remoteness from all that's happy and good," a line Hervochon delivers with perfect dead-pan dourness).

It's clear from the start that Celeste's destiny lies with the play's only other gentle soul -- a lonely, social misfit of a security guard played by Patrick Martyn as a Gomer Pyle clone, right down to the exclamation: "Woo-ee!"

Martyn's character is so ill-adjusted that he sleeps sitting up and refuses to remove his uniform -- even after the stench becomes so overpowering that he has to spray himself with air freshener. But to Celeste, he's a hero waiting to happen. In the play's most charming scene, she knights him with his flashlight.

She then figures she can call on him to perform a deed of valor. And, though the deed backfires, "Little Egypt" ends as happily as a damsel-in-distress could wish.

But don't let this happily-ever-after stuff fool you. The ordinariness of the setting and earthiness of the characters keep "Little Egypt from becoming cloying. Celeste's mom and older sister (Krys Abukassis) are sex-starved, desperate women. Their wardrobe -- designed by Matt Dettmer -- is the height of cheap chic, from Abukassis' white boots to Morrisette's strapless bar-hopping get-up, and their taste in men is even worse.

Morrisette's character falls for the town's married mayor (Peter Wilkes), whose most animated moments are re-enacting golf games; Abukassis' character chooses a mean-spirited freeloader (Darroe), whose notion of romance is the subtle proposition: "Move into your house with me."

None of the characters has much depth, and the play's episodic structure feels more like TV than theater. But on the plus side, "Little Egypt" belongs to the rarefied crude-but-charming genre, in which profanity and even a crass sex scene cannot obscure a tender heart.

Back in 1961 the Coasters had a hit with a novelty song by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller called "Little Egypt." The song was about the hootchy-kootchy dancer of that name, and though Siefert's play doesn't appear to be related to the song, the two share a certain tawdriness, a blatant approach to humor and an unexpectedly touching sense of romance.

This isn't the easiest combination to pull off. But AXIS' actors approach it with such loony earnestness, they make "Little Egypt" quirky fun.

'Little Egypt'

Where: AXIS Theatre, 3600 Clipper Mill Road

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; matinee at 2 p.m. April 13. Through April 13

Tickets: $12 and $14

Call: 410-243-5237

Pub Date: 3/27/97

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