Robert Hupp's love of Shakespeare and the Arkansas Repertory Theatre's grant from the National Endowment for the Arts have blended to create what promises to be a powerful production over the next three weeks at the Rep: Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." The Rep was among six U.S. theater groups (and the only one in the South) selected as a beneficiary of an NEA Shakespeare in American Communities grant. The program is designed to take professional productions of Shakespeare to smaller communities that otherwise wouldn't have access. Hupp, producing artistic director of the Rep for going on five years, has brought "Othello" and "The Tempest" to the Little Rock stage - the latter performed outdoors at Wildwood Park for the Performing Arts in 2002. He looks forward to returning the Rep to Wildwood for "Much Ado About Nothing," his favorite Shakespearean comedy, in the summer of 2005. Hupp is directing a production of "Romeo and Juliet" for the first time. "I've always been attracted to the play because of the power of the story," Hupp said. "To me the play is about passion and it's about what happens, both the positive and negative, that revolve around our passions. It's been a play I've wanted to work on for years and we've assembled an outstanding cast." Opening night is Friday, March 12. The play continues through Sunday, April 4. Because it's part of the NEA Shakespeare in American Communities initiative, the play will go the road for five weeks after its run in Little Rock and then return to Arkansas for staging in four state parks and venues in Jonesboro and Texarkana. After a few months' hiatus, it resumes in October with a two-week stint in Las Vegas. "We can't kill Romeo and Juliet off; we're going to be living with them for a long time," Hupp said. Hupp has set the timeless play in the Romantic era "to reflect the ideals, the passion of that era." Hupp has cast 15 actors, with many faces familiar to regular Rep goers. The leads are new to the area: Shannon Michael Wamser, a veteran of several regional theaters and Shakespeare festivals, is Romeo; Anne W. Griffin, who has performed Off-Off Broadway and in film and TV, is Juliet. Brian Webb Russell, whose hilarity sparked the recent Rep drama "God's Man in Texas," is part of the cast. Longtime Hupp collaborator Ellen Mandel of New York composed a score for the play. With leading U.S. Shakespearean actors performing to Mike Nichols' beautiful set, an acclaimed fight choreographer and an original score composed by Mandel, the play should be "an epic production," Hupp said. "I've been thrilled to work on it." Showtimes Thursday through Saturday are 8 p.m.; Wednesday's curtain is 7 p.m. Sunday has two shows, at 2 and 7 p.m. The running time is 2 1/2 hours with two acts. Tickets are $28 and $20. Call the Rep at 378-0405. Now might be a good time to line up reservations as well for The Second City, which has been substituted for "Stones in His Pocket" beginning April 16. Terry Sneed, one of the two actors who were going to play 30 parts in "Stones," had to pull out because of another performance he's in that was extended through the year. Cliff Baker, set to direct, didn't want to seek out a new actor at this late date, Hupp said. The Second City is a nice fallback - the Chicago-based sketch comedy and improvisational troupe has packed the Rep in its three previous visits since 1999, bringing out a hip, eclectic crowd. After almost two years since the last appearance, it's time again.