Sam Olecki, left, who plays both Hamlet and Romeo, rehearsed a sword fight with Joseph Peach Graves, who plays Polonius and Claudius.

To be -- or not to be ... ha ha!

By John Berger

After earning the audience's respect with her performance in The Actors Group production of "Equus" last fall, Devon Leigh is back to make her directorial debut at the helm of the group's season-opener, "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)."

"It feels like a humongous step, definitely," Leigh said during a quick phone interview between classes on Monday. The 20-year-old UH-Manoa theater arts major has been active on stage since she was 8, but since most of that experience was on the mainland, she is still just a step or two above being an unknown in Hawaii. Leigh made her local theater debut in the spring of 2001 with a small role in Hawaii Pacific University's revival of "Dark of the Moon," and then established herself with her performance opposite Noah Johnson in "Equus."

"One of the things that I absolutely love about TAG is the fact that they're willing to give (someone like me) a chance to direct a show," Leigh said. (She got some firsthand experience in directing last spring when she served as the assistant director of TAG's second annual production of "Harvey.")

Director Devon Leigh was surrounded by her cast, from left, Cecilia Lamb, Sam Olecki, Elisabeth Wenzel, Euphrosyne Rushforth, Joseph Peach Graves and Stephanie Kuroda during Monday's rehearsal of "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)" at the Yellow Brick Studio. The play opens tonight.

So what's the biggest difference between acting and directing?

"Well, I don't feel that the director is wrong nearly as much as I used to," she said half-seriously. "It's a very, very different experience, but I think having been an actor and having worked with many different directors before ... I think I'm really trying to find a directing style that works for me.

"I was an actor first -- and probably always will be an actor first -- but my biggest complaint as an actor was always with directors who would tell you exactly how to do it ... instead of coaxing you into discovering it. I've always found that it comes more naturally when you're discovering it for yourself instead of being told what to do exactly."

Leigh's cast must be finding plenty to discover in this comically abridged version of the Bard's work. The hit comedy by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield offers a lickety-split overview of Shakespeare's plays as staged in the spirit of the Marx Brothers, "Monty Python's Flying Circus" and Peter Schickele's P.D.Q. Bach classical music parodies (Long, Singer and Winfield also wrote "The Complete History of America (Abridged)," which was a big hit at Manoa Valley Theatre last summer).

No knowledge of Shakespeare is necessary to be entertained by the playwrights' work, although it takes a true Shakespeare fan with a good sense of humor to catch all of the subtle bits and pieces.

"If you've never read a Shakespeare play before, you can still come and enjoy it ... and I actually think if Shakespeare were alive today, he'd sit down and he'd laugh. He would love it," Leigh said.

"He wrote the most ingenious comedies ever, and he was a big fan of (plots involving) mistaken identity and cross-dressing. All those things are paid tribute to in this show."

Leigh concedes that purists out there will automatically hate the whole idea of using Shakespeare as the basis of contemporary comedy, even though the playwrights aren't attempting to "improve" on his work by rewriting his classic scripts to conform to current notions of political correctness.

"I, on the other hand, think it's kind of a fitting tribute. If you always loved Shakespeare, you can go and appreciate it, or if you were turned off to Shakespeare in high school, you can go and maybe get turned back on to Shakespeare. It shows some of the lighter side, the more comical side of his work, and those are the aspects of the show that really got me turned on to it."

'The Complete Works of
William Shakespeare (Abridged)'

Presented by The Actors Group:

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. today through Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday, through Oct. 13
Place: Yellow Brick Studio, 625 Keawe St.
Tickets: $10
Call: 591-7999

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